Saving Highlandtown's Grand

City Diary

January 17, 2001|By Rafael Alvarez

BEYOND THOUGHT and greater than reason, I am a preservationist.

When I see wrecking balls cracking the hides of buildings whose likes we will not see again -- the old Horn & Horn on The Block torn down for a parking garage or the current crime at Redwood and Light streets -- a spirit older than my 42 years cries out at the stupidity.

The desire to save people and things, be it my grandmother's dented spaghetti pots from the Depression or the ice-eating homeless man named Bruce who lives behind The Sun's building, is keen and often overwhelming.

Nostalgia, as any literate Greek flipping eggs in Baltimore can tell you, comes from nostos, a longing for home so strong it can lead to a severe and sometimes fatal form of melancholia.

The home I long for has sheltered all of us, and it was here, it seems, just the other day ...

I don't know how to fix stuff that breaks the way the dead and gone old-timers from the city's factory days once did: a broken handle riveted to a sauce pan or wire twisted between the legs of a wobbly chair to keep it tight and straight.

But I dream a lot; save nickels to buy any rowhouse within a fig's throw of my own and try to honor local customs and architecture slain by the greed that hides behind expedience and progress.

Which brings us to the Grand Theater off the corner of Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street in the heart of the Highlandtown shopping district. For years, I hoped that the long-vacant Grand, built in 1913 on the site of a German slaughterhouse, would become the Senator Theatre of the east side. Alas ...

Recently, the City Council passed legislation to acquire all but one property on the east side of the 500 block of S. Conkling St. To make way for a state-of-the-art regional branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the grease-stained cottage that was the Little Tavern, the Phyllis Beauty Salon and a few other remnants are set to tumble with the Grand.

Naturally, the one building so ugly that it should be torn down, the suburban-styled Carrollton Bank at Conkling and Fleet streets, gets to stay.

After years of covering public protests to keep neighborhood branches of the Pratt open, I find it odd to be criticizing a move to add a jewel to the library's crown. Still, I must side with nearly 1,000 of my neighbors who have signed a petition of the Grand Theater Preservation League asking Pratt chief Carla Hayden to incorporate the building into the design of the new library.

While activists have commissioned a number of strong, creative blueprints from Gant Hart Brunnett Architects showing ways in which the entire theater could be used, they may find themselves lucky to save the Art Deco faM-gade.

Having seen efforts fail to build the new library on the site of a rather run-down supermarket a few blocks away, the Pratt is making no promises.

"Keeping the faM-gade would be the easiest thing to do," Ms. Hayden said last week. "We've always said that."

"The entire building is less likely," said John Sondheim, the library's manager of planning. "It's in dreadful shape on the inside and, as a neighborhood theater with a balcony, it's not very adaptable."

Salvatore Zannino, who grew up above his family's funeral home a few blocks away from the Grand and heads efforts to save the landmark, doesn't buy it.

Holding a sheaf of Gant Hart Brunnett documents the other day over coffee at DiPasquale's deli on Gough Street, Mr. Zannino showed how the theater's sloping floor could be used for wheelchair ramps. He envisioned the stage as the centerpiece of a children's auditorium and argued that the whole place could be preserved if somebody in charge made it his or her business to do so.

Dr. Hayden says she won't know what is possible until she gets inside the old vaudeville palace with her own architects.

Mr. Sondheim was skeptical of salvaging anything beyond the faM-gade but welcomed all ideas at a community meeting to be scheduled in late February or early March.

The biggest thing the folks who want to see the building saved have going for them is that no date has been set for demolition.

If you never held hands with a date at the Grand or got treated to a screening of "Pinocchio" by an olive-skinned grandmother who shared the same heritage as Geppetto, you can glimpse the theater in "Cecil B. Demented," John Waters' last film, or stop in Louie's on North Charles Street to see a watercolor by Carol Offutt.

Ms. Offutt never saw a picture at the Grand, but the beautiful show that is the building itself stopped the artist one day as she drove along Eastern Avenue.

"Its very dramatic and romantic looking," she said. "And the colors are wonderful -- pale green and ochre -- especially in certain light. I was there late in the day with the sun setting on it and pigeons roosting in the marquee."

Today's writer

Rafael Alvarez has been a reporter for The Sun since 1981. He will be leaving the paper at the end of the month to write fiction full time.

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