So long, Hammerjacks Ending: For years, the club defined the city's popular music scene. Now the site is slated to become a parking lot.

April 20, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

What defines a city's musical identity is its clubs. It's not just a matter of taking a town's musical pulse; it has to do with expressing an attitude and defining a style.

Maybe that's why the best-known clubs carry a cachet that goes well beyond whoever happens to be playing there at the moment. Think of CBGB's in New York, the Marquee in London, the Troubador in Los Angeles.

Think of Hammerjacks.

From its spot on South Howard Street beneath the Interstate 395 overpass, Hammerjacks has defined the Baltimore popular music scene for almost a dozen years. Every kind of band has played there, from Cyndi Lauper to the Cycle Sluts from Hell, and over the years, the club has played host to some of the biggest names in popular music: Guns N' Roses, Nine Inch Nails, Kiss, Coolio, Marilyn Manson, Marky Mark, Roxette, Rage Against the Machine, Oasis, the Pretenders, Edie Brickell and Soundgarden.

In the process, it has attracted an astonishing array of music fans. Despite the club's late-'80s image as a haven for big-haired, scantily dressed hard-rock gals and their long-haired boyfriends in tight jeans, Hammerjacks' appeal was far broader. These days, in fact, the club draws a large and hip urban music crowd, ranging from dance-happy yuppies to dedicated hip-hop kids.

But all that will be coming to an end soon. On Tuesday, the Maryland Stadium Authority approved a $3.1 million agreement to buy the Hammerjacks complex (which includes the Hammerjacks Concert Hall and Louie Louie's Nightclub), and an adjoining warehouse, to make room for more stadium parking.

To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they're going to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

Although a closing date has yet to be set (the club will be open Thursday through Sunday nights at least until the end of the month), owner Lou Principio insists this is the end for Hammerjacks. "There never can be another Hammerjacks," he says. "It's not over because I wouldn't do another one; it's over because I can't create those ingredients to make that cake again."

Principio is talking size and location. As he sees it, part of what made Hammerjacks such a success was that the club managed to be in the heart of the city while effectively being in the middle of nowhere.

"It was an old brewery, built in the 1890s, I think," he says of the South Howard Street site that became Hammerjacks. When he first looked at the building, he says, "that area was completely industrial blight. I picked the area purposely because it was industrial and out-of-the-way, because I didn't want to disturb any residential neighborhoods."

This was a lesson he had learned with the club's first incarnation, in a converted rowhouse on South Charles Street in Federal Hill.

"I discovered from our previous location that the biggest problem nightclubs and entertainment complexes have is that the neighbors have complaints due to the noise, and overflow of the crowd, and traffic. And rightly so. I felt that this was a good location, because I had the highway right there, and I had the parking. [Patrons] could exit without going through any residential neighborhoods."

Making sure a lot of people could get in and out easily was important, because Hammerjacks is huge. Between the concert hall and the club, Principio's palace could easily contain 3,000 people -- nearly 20 percent more than the Meyerhoff, and more than 10 times the capacity of the nearby 8x10 Club.

Raising the roof

Turning that old brewery into a nightclub was no small task. "We re-did that whole building," Principio says. "I needed to do a two-floor structure with balconies, and I literally had to go in with bulldozers and tear up the first floor and dig it 30 inches down, because I couldn't raise the roof. And the reason I bought the building was because of the roof structure. The roof was an old wooden truss system, like something that would be used for old wooden bridges. I said, 'Man, you could never build that today.' "

Principio had a reason for wanting a two-story structure. "I didn't like the old nightclubs of 25 years ago, where when you walked to the back where the bathrooms were, you had to come back the same way and everybody was looking at you," he says. "So my building was designed so that you never were intimidated by walking around."

This wasn't just to stave off rest-room anxiety, either. Hammerjacks, Principio says, was designed to be a gathering place. "It was a singles place, where singles meet," he says. "It wasn't so much an alcohol distribution center as an entertainment place where people met each other. And that's what the whole thing was laid out for."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.