Playing now on the west side: hope

Plans are afoot to rejuvenate an arts district by renovating the Town Theater in addition to the Hippodrome.


January 16, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Baltimore's efforts to establish a theater district on the west side of downtown are gaining momentum, with two groups planning to restore nearby historic theaters to create one vibrant "pocket of performing arts."

The Maryland Stadium Authority and others are seeking funds from the General Assembly this year to begin transforming the 1914 Hippodrome Theater at 12 N. Eutaw St. to a $53 million, 2,249-seat performing arts complex.

If initial funds are approved, work could begin by summer and be complete by the fall of 2002. The project is a key element of a $350 million revitalization plan for the west side of downtown Baltimore.

Now a private group, selected by the city to redevelop the block just east of the Hippodrome, is planning to restore the 1911 Town Theater at 311-317 W. Fayette St. as part of a $54 million project called Centerpoint.

"We aim to complement the proposed restoration of the Hippodrome by renovating the Town Theater to a 600-800 seat performing arts venue," the developers stated in their proposal to the Baltimore Development Corp., the quasi-public agency that oversees downtown redevelopment.

"Potential users such as the Baltimore Opera and the Towson University Theatre Arts division have expressed interest in utilizing a centrally located downtown performing arts space," the developers said.

"The Town will be further related to the Hippodrome by creating a Eutaw Street marquee and public plaza where the surface parking currently exists, creating a 'pocket of performing arts' on Eutaw Street."

The Town and the Hippodrome are similar in several ways. They are among the last surviving theaters in downtown Baltimore that started as vaudeville houses before showing movies. Both were the products of well-known theater designers of the time. Both went through a series of operators, were eventually acquired by the same organization, J.F. Theaters, and have been dark since 1990. In the mid 1990s, both were donated to the University of Maryland, Baltimore by Continental Realty Corp. in the hopes that they could someday be renovated.

The buildings also are different in several key respects, and the latest redevelopment plans call for them to be renovated in ways that take advantage of their particular strengths. The Hippodrome has been given the starring role, while the Town will be more of a supporting player.

Though open several years after the Town, the Hippodrome has a longer history as a center for live entertainment. It was built by Pearce and Scheck, a company that put together vaudeville bills and toured them. Performers who appeared there included George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton and Bob Hope. The Hippodrome also has a more ornate interior, designed by the Scottish architect Thomas Lamb, who specialized in gilded entertainment palaces.

Of the two theaters, the Hippodrome is being developed as a performing arts center that can attract traveling Broadway-style shows -- such as "Miss Saigon" or "The Phantom of the Opera" -- that now bypass Baltimore. The design team is led by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, the New York firm that has restored landmarks such as Radio City Music Hall and the New Amsterdam theater in New York. Murphy & Dittenhafer of Baltimore is the local architect.

The Town was the site of live performances by Mae West and comedian Joe E. Brown, among others, and brief appearances at local movie premieres by luminaries such as actor Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra. But because it began showing movies two years after its opening in 1911, not as many famous entertainers performed there as at the Hippodrome.

In keeping with its history, the Town is being redeveloped as a companion to the Hippodrome, rather than a rival to it. The renovation plans call for it to be transformed into a multipurpose performing hall that can accommodate a variety of smaller student or professional productions, such as chamber opera, choral music or dance.

Besides providing space for performances, the theater may also be used by local arts organizations that need rehearsal space. It would be Baltimore's equivalent of the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills, Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium in Towson or the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick.

The Centerpoint development team includes Bank of America Community Development Corp. of Baltimore and the Harold A. Dawson Co. Inc. of Atlanta. Kann & Associates of Baltimore is the architect, and STV Inc. is the civil engineer. Harkins Builders is the prime contractor.

Besides restoring the Town Theater, the Centerpoint team wants to build 334 apartments, more than 50,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, and 403 parking spaces in the block bounded by Howard, Eutaw, Fayette and Baltimore streets. Last month, Mayor Martin O'Malley gave the team a 120-day exclusive negotiating period to finalize its plans for the area.

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