Coming Attractions Theaters: The Charles wants to renovate an adjoining space

the Senator is planning to add on.

December 07, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Hundreds of historic movie theaters have been destroyed in recent years -- by owners who only wanted to save them.

Striving to compete with multi-theater cinema complexes that were proliferating in the suburbs, the operators of these older urban theaters decided to "twin" them -- literally building walls down the middle of each auditorium to increase the number of screens on the premises.

The Boulevard, the Towson, the Patterson and the Hillendale were just a few of the once-spacious local theaters that were "internally multiplexed" in this fashion. More often than not, the changes have robbed older theaters of the very qualities that distinguished them from their suburban counterparts, including large screens, pleasing proportions and superior sightlines and acoustics. The practice has largely fallen out of favor as a result.

This year, owners of two 1930s-era theaters that escaped the twinning craze -- the Charles and the Senator -- have been exploring more sensitive approaches to expansion, ideas that would enable them to increase the number of theaters on-site without chopping up what they already have.

The strategies are quite different from each other, but equally promising. If they're successful, the city would gain two expanded cinema complexes that could be strong anchors for their respective neighborhoods. The owners would wind up with preservation showcases that demonstrate how even more historic theaters can be put on a sounder financial footing.

The operators of the Charles Theatre, James "Buzz" Cusack and John Standiford, drew inspiration for their $1.3 million expansion from the configuration of the original theater, which they have run since March 1994.

The theater opened in 1939 inside the shell of an old cable car barn in the 1700 block of N. Charles St. That makes it one of the first adaptive reuse projects in Baltimore.

The 485-seat movie house, originally known as the Times Theatre, occupies the southern half of the car barn, which was built in 1890 and went out of business within a decade. During the early 20th century, it was a bus storage and maintenance facility.

When the southern half became a theater, the northern half was converted to a bowling alley. In the late 1940s, the upper level was turned into a big band and jazz hall called the Famous Ballroom.

As seen from Charles Street, the car barn always looked like two separate buildings, because the south side was a power-generating station and the north side was the main storage area. By the 1940s, it was more fragmented than ever, with metal sheathing, glass-block windows and a marquee above the theater entrance.

Today, both halves are owned by the same company, Bowling Inc., headed by Alan Shecter. That common ownership, and Shecter's willingness to allow the buildings to be altered, are keys to the latest expansion plans.

After taking control of the Charles Theatre in 1994, Cusack and Standiford explored the possibility of expanding into the Famous Ballroom space, which has been vacant for the past decade. That would have given them room for one additional theater, but they wanted as many as possible.

Examining the building, they discovered that the ballroom floor on the northern side of the car barn was not original and could be removed without causing structural damage to the building. If it were removed to create one large space, they reasoned, they would be able to add several theaters to supplement the Charles, not just one. They would also still qualify for historic preservation tax credits, because the added floor was not part of the original car barn.

The ability to remove the floor was another key to making the project work, because it enabled them to insert theaters within the shell of the car barn's northern section, just as the Charles was inserted into the southern section.

Since the north side is larger than the south side, the theater operators were able to find room to build four theaters comfortably, along with corridors, restrooms and other spaces. The largest would be a 250-seat theater, with stadium-style seating and a 32-foot-wide screen. Others would have 169, 147 and 120 seats and 22-foot-wide screens. Cusack and Standiford say all would be designed to echo the clean lines of the original Charles, which will stay pretty much as it is.

The northern section would also have a new Charles Street lobby serving as the entrance to all five theaters. The existing theater lobby would become a new home for the Cafe Metropol, now located just north of the theater. Construction would be staged so the Charles can remain open while work proceeds next door.

The Famous Ballroom building turned out to be ideal for the expansion, Cusack said. "It's the right width. It's the right height. It gives us the right number of theaters and the right amount of concession space. It's perfect for what we're trying to do."

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