Forgotten music hall rediscovered

Theater: Talbot officials have only a few weeks left to decide the venue's fate.

April 15, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- Here in the Talbot County seat, in a town that is often called the Colonial capital of the Eastern Shore, folks have uncovered an architectural treasure right under their noses -- a 124-year-old music hall, complete with a 40-foot ceiling, a rare inclined stage and even some of its original backdrop scenery.

Now, preservationists, community theater groups and county officials are scrambling to figure out what to do with it.

The theater was uncovered a few weeks ago when construction workers peeled away drywall, partitions and a false ceiling installed in the late 1950s when the space was converted for use by county government office workers.

Housed in an impressive three-story brick building, circa 1879, that long ago became a wing of the county courthouse, the second-floor performance hall was for decades a home for opera, vaudeville shows, concerts and, eventually, movies.

In its heyday, the hall must have been spectacular, preservationists say. It could seat 600 and included a huge vaulted ceiling and ornate gas chandeliers.

The scenery was painted by a Baltimore artist named Hagadorn, according to newspaper accounts of the day. The hall's inclined or "canted" stage provided good sight lines for audience members no matter where they sat. Stairs on either side gave performers access to dressing rooms below the stage.

It was designed by Baltimore architects Frank and Henry Davis, who were responsible for the 5th Regiment Armory, the west and northeast police stations and other Charm City landmarks.

In later incarnations, it was bought by the county government, served as a library and most recently provided office space and a meeting room for the Talbot County Council.

The discovery came when work began on a $3.3 million office renovation project this winter.

"I went up the stairs to see what all the noise was, and I just couldn't believe it when I saw that huge ceiling," says Merritt A. Vaughn, a building contractor and portrait painter who first sounded the alarm that the work was about to ruin the old hall.

"I wasn't sure what to do, but I started making some calls," he said. "I just wanted people to realize what they had here before it was gone."

State and local preservationists quickly convinced town officials to delay any structural work in the hall, temporarily diverting construction workers to install heating, air conditioning and sprinkler systems in other parts of the building.

"I don't know how this is all going to turn out, but somehow we have to keep it from disappearing," says Vaughn.

There's widespread support for preserving the place, which sits in the heart of the historic downtown, attached to the county courthouse that dates to 1794. But Talbot officials worry about how they'll pay for restoration in a year when budgets are squeezed tight.

Plus, they warn that a decision has to be made in the next couple weeks or the county will violate its contract with the company that won the bid for overhauling offices -- not restoration work. The county council is having a work session today to talk about the options.

"I'm leaning on the side of the preservationists, but it isn't way up there on the budget priority list," says County Councilwoman Hilary Spence. "I just don't know where we'd find the money for this."

Sitting in a slate-roofed building that once included a first-floor market and general store, the hall was built for $12,000 by a company made up of prominent local merchants and professionals.

Alex Handy, a marketing and advertising executive who is active in Easton's vibrant performing arts scene, says the music hall would be a perfect complement to other venues downtown, including the restored Art Deco Avalon Theatre. The hall could provide a boost to help create a summertime arts festival in the town of 11,000.

"The people who built this theater were pillars of the community, and I think our current leaders also understand something about posterity and legacy," says Handy, a resident since 1988. "It was news to me that the hall even existed, and I bet it was to most other people."

Lifelong residents such as Jacques Baker, an Orphans' Court judge who is a member of the county's historic district commission, say they remember the music hall as a movie theater or a place for community dances well into the 1950s.

"I was in a Sea Scout troop that met above the library," says Baker, 66. "We all knew it was there, but over the years, we forgot or just never thought about it. It's like a time capsule."

With time running out before construction crews are idled, county officials are considering whether they can afford minimal work such as an exterior stairway, heating, air conditioning and sprinklers or whether to take on a more complete renovation of the hall, which would cost about $1.2 million.

Beyond the additional cost, county leaders point to a critical need for new office space for workers who are scattered in several locations around Easton. In the near future, the county must also provide more space for an increasingly busy Circuit Court.

Council members have asked preservation groups and others who might help secure grants to pay for the project to attend today's work session.

"Having almost completed our budget work and that dreary scene, it's hard for some council members to get excited about this," says Councilwoman Hope Harrington. "But it would just be sickening to lose that space. Until you actually see it, you can't imagine it was there all along."

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