Irons In The Fire Restoration: The foundry that became an artists' colony burned in 1995. Now, it may be reborn as a center for filmmaking as well art studios.

April 13, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

From the entrance to Baltimore's Clipper Industrial Park, most visitors see a haunting symbol of the past: the charred remains of a once-bustling artists' colony, nearly wiped out by one of the worst fires in recent city history.

But owner Bill Poloway looks through that entrance and sees the future.

He not only pictures a flourishing arts village, with sculptors, painters, potters and metalworkers, but also a Hollywood-style back lot with a giant sound stage, set design and fabrication shops, dressing rooms, editing rooms, prop storage and a commissary.

This full-blown production center would serve film companies when they shoot major motion pictures in Maryland, and it could help make the Hampden-Woodberry section of Baltimore the local equivalent of New York's Tribeca neighborhood, a center for actors, filmmakers and others in the arts.

Poloway's emerging vision for the reconstruction of Clipper Park comes 19 months after a nine-alarm fire raced through the former iron foundry and displaced nearly two dozen artists and small businesses there. Some lost their life's work. A 25-year-old firefighter, Eric Schaefer, lost his life battling the blaze.

Poloway, whose family has owned the property since 1972, vowed to rebuild a week after the fire, in September 1995. He has spent the last year and a half trying to determine exactly what that would entail and how to pay for it.

"There's just not a lot of demand for mid-19th- century factories," he admitted during a recent tour of the property. But "there are a lot of pluses here. We know there's a market for something. The question is, what? A big store, or something more challenging?"

Poloway is working with the Clipper Park Arts Center, a nonprofit artists' group, to develop a master plan for the 17-acre property at 3500 Clipper Road, located along the banks of a stream near where Interstate 83 slices through the Jones Falls Valley.

Surprisingly picturesque for an urban location, the land is on the opposite side of the light rail tracks from Meadow Mill, one-time home of the London Fog raincoat factory, and the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. Less than half a block from a light-rail stop, it's a stone's throw from the Baltimore Zoo.

About 20 artists now occupy various spaces within Clipper Park, compared to 50 before the fire. Poloway has identified areas where additional artists' space could be constructed. But he believes the key to the project's economic viability is attracting a more diverse mix of tenants, so all the rebuilding costs don't fall on the artists.

He has focused on the film industry because more and more major motion pictures are being shot on location in Maryland, and companies often need permanent facilities for interior filming and post-production work.

Recent movies shot locally include, "Home for the Holidays," "12 Monkeys," "Major League II" and "Absolute Power." A movie starring Tim Allen is expected to begin shooting later this month.

In some cases, filmmakers come to Maryland because the script calls for it, as in the case of Barry Levinson's classics, such as "Diner" and "Avalon," or the movie made from Anne Tyler's "The Accidental Tourist." The NBC series "Homicide: Life on the Street," has been filming in Fells Point for several years.

In other cases, Maryland settings double for other places. Mount Vernon Square became a Parisian park in the soon-to-be released "Washington Square." The Walters Art Gallery stood in for Washington's Corcoran Art Gallery in "Absolute Power." A Mount Washington estate became an Ohio residence in "Guarding Tess."

Though minutes from downtown, Clipper Park is a secure, out-of-the-way setting that already has the feel of a Hollywood back lot and is large enough to accommodate the 300 to 500 people who might work there.

"We believe it could be an attractive location for the state's film industry," said Al Barry, a development consultant to Poloway. "The buildings are interconnected, and some have very high ceilings and clear spans. A street runs down the middle, and there's a large parking area for trailers. It has a wonderful natural and historic character, which would make it a desirable workplace."

Poloway and Barry explained that many film companies come to Maryland to shoot outdoor scenes but return to Los Angeles or elsewhere to shoot interior scenes in a sound stage. If Baltimore had a wider range of facilities for indoor filming, they said, film companies likely would stay in town longer, pumping even more money into the local economy.

Baltimore has several private operations -- Flite 3 Recordings Inc., Sheffield Audio-Visual Productions and Spicer Productions -- that are used for filming of movies and commercials. But the largest sound stage in town is less than 10,000 square feet -- relatively small by industry standards.

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