It's the classic story of the understudy who gets a big break and becomes a star.
For years, local theater lovers have talked about building a new performing arts center at some prestigious location near downtown -- the Inner Harbor shoreline, perhaps, or the Mount Royal cultural district. But the price tag was always too high. Now they've turned to a promising candidate waiting in the wings.
The venerable Hippodrome Theater, a 1914 vaudeville house donated to the University of Maryland last year, isn't in the best part of town and doesn't have the same pizazz as some new showplace on the water. But it is a theatrical landmark. It has a rich history. It's the right size. Best of all, it can be restored for a fraction of the cost of new construction.
And that's essentially how a long-forgotten theater on the west side of town won the starring role to replace the aging Mechanic Theatre as a new venue for the performing arts in Baltimore.
"We couldn't go in [to the General Assembly] for a big project," Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke explained last week. "This made more sense."
If restoring the Hippodrome was an idea borne of fiscal timidity, it turns out to be one of the bolder planning initiatives suggested for downtown Baltimore in the 1990s.
Expedient enough to pass muster with budget crunchers, it's actually a "big bang" vision comparable to locating the Harborplace pavilions at Pratt and Light streets or building a two-stadium sports complex in Camden Yards. It would benefit the city by shining the spotlight on a neglected part of town and, perhaps, bringing it back to life.
As conceived by Theatre Management Group of Houston and its architects, Martinez & Johnson of Washington, the $35 million project also would suit the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, the nonprofit association that operates the Mechanic and has been looking for a new home to accommodate big shows that now bypass Baltimore.
The building itself has star power; the nostalgia factor alone may bring in crowds. Restoring the Hippodrome would even be trendy, putting Baltimore in the same league as New York, Washington and other cities that have turned old theaters into civic showpieces.
What started as a fallback solution may prove to be the best
option after all, for theatergoers and the city at large.
A star is born
Located at 12 N. Eutaw St., the 2,250-seat Hippodrome theater was designed by Scottish architect Thomas Lamb, who specialized in gilded entertainment palaces. Built by Pearce and Scheck, a company that put together vaudeville bills and toured them, it's one of the last grand theaters in downtown Baltimore dating from the vaudeville era.
The idea for creating the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center came from the Greater Baltimore Committee, an organization of business leaders, and the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit group that works to improve the city's business climate.
The plan moved ahead last week when Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced his support for using $1.7 million in state funds to plan the project. Construction funds would come later ++ from city, state and private sources including Theatre Management Group, which wants to run the complex.
To be worthy of public support, the Hippodrome complex must work on two levels: as a self-sufficient arts center and as a catalyst for rejuvenation of the surrounding area.
Although the plan is at a preliminary stage, it shows every sign of succeeding on both counts. What makes the idea so promising is that sponsors have proposed to restore much more than the Hippodrome itself.
The plan unveiled last week calls for the Hippodrome to be the centerpiece of a seven-building complex that would take up most of the block bounded by Paca, Baltimore, Eutaw and Fayette streets.
These buildings would be connected to create a multitheater complex capable of accommodating all kinds of productions, from Broadway's largest touring shows to intimate musical, dance and comedy acts.
Linked to a 975-car garage and equipped with catering facilities already on the premises, it also would be a setting for conferences, seminars and other meetings for up to 200.
This arts center, in turn, would benefit the larger area. For more than a decade, city and state planners have encouraged the University of Maryland's downtown campus to grow eastward and the central business district to grow westward, so they essentially become one. The Hippodrome is exactly the sort of catalyst needed to speed up the process.
Assembling the Hippodrome block is a key to making a flexible center, because it enables the design team to use not only the structures themselves but also the alleys and other spaces in between. In their preliminary work, the architects have suggested logical, pragmatic connections that make the most of the buildings' attributes.