Rails survive riffs and flicks Finds: Expansion of the Charles Theater uncovers relics of the Famous Ballroom and Baltimore's cable railway.

July 23, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A renovation crew aimed air hammers at an old concrete floor and struck hidden pay dirt -- tough and unmovable fragments of an 1890s cable railway system whose cumbersome machinery and steel pulleys once whirled just under Baltimore's streets.

On the ground floor of what generations of Baltimoreans recall as the Famous Ballroom, James "Buzz" Cusack and the workers discovered sections of stubbornly permanent steel rails, rail spikes and wooden ties. The hidden reminders once served the Baltimore City Passenger Railway, which flourished before changes in traction technology doomed the costly, labor-intensive cable system, an operation similar to San Francisco's.

Cusack is transforming the cavernous barn in the 1700 block to N. Charles St. into a modern, four-screen adjunct of the Charles Theater, his well-known art film house just north of Pennsylvania Station which remains open during the expansion.

As the workers drove sledgehammers at powdery plaster walls recently, they found other remnants of 1890s Baltimore: an intricate Victorian yellow and terra cotta brickwork design and an inscribed stone panel honoring the street railway company's top brass, its engineers and architect.

Cusack said he considers the discoveries so valuable, he will work some of them into the renovation.

Oden Bowie, then president of the car line, will have his name prominently displayed, along with those of the directors, on the stone panel. Bowie, whose term as Maryland's governor began in January 1869, died two years after the car house was constructed in 1892.

While he is famous as a railroad mogul with train enthusiasts -- the town of Odenton, the busiest station between Baltimore and Washington, is named for him -- Bowie also was a thoroughbred racing enthusiast. He created the Preakness Stakes and its home at Pimlico Race Course, where Bowie ran the Maryland Jockey Club.

The plaque also lists the City Passenger Railway's board -- E. Austin Jenkins, John Bolgiano, Gabriel Clark, Wesley Tucker and Bernard Cohn. Jackson Gott, who gave Baltimore its Maryland Penitentiary, designed the cable car house and so his name is included.

"It's fantastic when we find anything left from the cable car system," said Warren Olt, a founder of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. "I remember in later years when the buses' noses stuck out of the front" of the car barn.

The old rails and their heavy foundations, and the well-like pits where mechanics serviced the undersides of the cars, have proven a construction hassle. Cusack said the infrastructure has impeded installation of the movie seats' steel risers for a couple weeks.

He expects the theater project to be finished by the end of the year. The four new screens will add 1,135 seats.

Cusack plans to lay a new concrete floor and leave the rails undisturbed. The stone plaque and patterned brick walls will be incorporated into the decor.

Long before the silver screens arrived here, the City Passenger Railway's powerhouse and car barn were a major Charles Street presence. The steam boilers that operated the complicated mechanical equipment were housed in what is the Charles Theater. The portion of the complex being renovated held the cable cars when they weren't rolling along St. Paul and Charles streets.

The farthest north the cable cars traveled was St. Paul and 25th streets -- not far from the wooden ballpark where the 1890s Orioles teams played. About 1915, the car barn was converted into a motorbus garage. The transit company sold the property in the 1930s.

The first objects Cusack found in April were reminders of the 1948 Famous Ballroom -- a 12,000-square-foot dance hall built within the car house by Baltimorean Louis Shecter. It was modeled after the Roseland in Manhattan.

Cusack found 1940s curtain fabric printed with stars and planets. He also located a flier from the Left Bank Jazz Society, the group that gave Baltimoreans so many Sunday afternoons of live jazz -- Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane,Chet Baker and Horace Silver among the performers.

Cusack, who owns a general contracting company and owns the Charles in partnership with theater manager John Standiford, came to the Charles' rescue in 1994 when previous owner David Levy announced he was shutting it down. Cusack and Standiford have run the house since then. Last year, they announced plans to expand and received a $79,000 city grant, plus a $485,000 state loan and a $720,000 private loan to expand the Charles with the four screens immediately to the north.

"There's a lot of Baltimore romance associated with the Famous. Maybe we'll call the new place the Famous-Charles," Cusack said.

Each day pedestrians stick their heads through a construction door and try to peek into the car house.

"This building has had a lot of use and context here," Cusack said. "It's about to become a movie theater. It's certain to have more uses after I'm gone."

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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