Cultural Restoration

Hippodrome's neighbors can take inspiration from what's happening all around the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, saved by the same architect.

October 01, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

BROOKLYN, N. Y. - There's a new Viennese restaurant on Lafayette Avenue here, and you'd better make reservations early if you want to get in on a theater night.

Called Thomas Beisl - Austrian for Thomas Bistro - the cafe is one of many businesses that have opened in recent years around the Brooklyn Academy of Music or BAM.

Owner Thomas Ferlesch, a longtime Brooklyn resident, quit his job after 11 years as executive chef of Manhattan's Cafe des Artistes to capitalize on what he calls new energy in the neighborhood - energy that he attributes to BAM.

"It's opening night [of the fall season] and I'm completely booked," Ferlesch says. "I have a full house, and it's all because of the theater."

Transformed largely by Hugh Hardy - the architect who also is overseeing the renovation of Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre at 12 N. Eutaw St. - BAM is the centerpiece of an emerging arts district in the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn.

The new shops and restaurants are part of the renaissance that is transforming the area. And they may provide a glimpse of what's to come on the west side of downtown Baltimore, where the 1914 Hippodrome is in the final stages of a $65 million conversion to the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, due to open in February.

Like the Hippodrome, BAM bustled with activity in the early 20th century, experienced a drop in use as its neighborhood declined, and now is being reinvigorated for 21st-century audiences.

Now BAM operates a 2,109-seat main hall, four cinemas seating more than 700 in all, a cabaret space, two rehearsal halls and another, 874-seat performance hall, the Harvey Lichtenstein Theater, two blocks away. When it opens again, the Hippodrome will have 2,276 seats in the main auditorium, plus a second space for meetings or smaller performances.

In both cases, the principal architect for most of the work was Hardy of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, a New York-based firm that specializes in restoring historic theaters.

The 71-year-old architect has been working on the Hippodrome for the past five years, and his involvement with BAM goes back to the late 1970s. Because BAM's initial phases have been complete for more than a decade, it's possible to see how patrons responded - and what implications that has for Baltimore.

As one of the first major restoration projects to get under way in Brooklyn in many years, Hardy says, BAM paved the way for the larger renewal effort, and the Hippodrome can do the same.

"It really has worked" he says of BAM. The performing arts center "brought new people to the area, new audiences. It's estimated that 20 to 30 percent of the audiences do other things while they're in the area. They make the place come alive around the clock. It really has become the rallying point."

BAM provides an example of how a cultural center can be a magnet for an emerging area, says Jeffrey Levine, vice president in charge of marketing and communications for BAM. "The purpose of culture is to bring people together. We've been very successful at drawing people, including those from other boroughs. It's something that cultural centers can offer that other things can't."

The roof of BAM's main building at 30 Lafayette Ave. is an ideal vantage point from which to take in the Brooklyn renaissance.

Within a five block radius, construction is under way on a large retail center, offices and incubator space for artists. Once-neglected brownstones are being restored by middle class homeowners, and prices are rising. Plans are in the works for new housing, a public radio station, library and art galleries.

The area now has its own redevelopment authority, the BAM Local Development Corp., which seeks arts-related uses for underutilized properties. Architects for future projects include luminaries such as Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Enrique Norten and Diller & Scofidio.

No one claims that BAM alone has turned the area around, but it's clear that it played a major role. That's a source of pride to its director, Baltimore native Karen Brooks Hopkins.

Beyond Manhattan

"The idea was to create a new center for arts and culture outside the borough of Manhattan," she says. "This building is one of the greatest theaters in the country. It's bringing 400,000 people a year to Brooklyn, and we're delighted to have the opportunity to restore it."

BAM's story may sound familiar to those who know about the rise and decline of the Hippodrome, one of Baltimore's early vaudeville playhouses.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music was founded in 1861, but its first home burned to the ground in 1903. The present building dates from 1908 and was designed by Herts and Tallant, the same architects who created the Lyceum and New Amsterdam theaters in Manhattan. Just as the Hippodrome was a key stop for vaudevillians, BAM drew the stars of the opera world, such as Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar.

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