Revived theater revitalizes hope

Urban Chronicle

Hippodrome: The historic movie house could be the linchpin for a resurgence of the neglected west side of downtown.

February 05, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

THE HIPPODROME Theatre, which has its grand opening Tuesday night, is not nearly as big -- nor expensive -- as Oriole Park at Camden Yards or M&T Bank Stadium. And it may not be featured on the cover of Time magazine, the way Harborplace was, or become a beacon in aerial pictures of Baltimore, like the National Aquarium.

But among major public buildings in the city that have opened during the past quarter-century, the Hippodrome stands out for the way it blends historic preservation, civic and cultural attraction, and hoped-for community revitalization.

The Hippodrome, which opened in 1914 as a vaudeville and movie house and sputtered to a close three-quarters of a century later as the city's last downtown first-run movie theater, is hardly the first restored building of the city's renaissance.

Others include the Fishmarket and the Power Plant, first converted in the 1980s to nightclub complexes, closed and later reborn again as, respectively, a struggling children's museum and a successful retail, entertainment and office complex; the American Can Company and Tindeco Wharf, former factories that became retail and apartment projects, helping spur Canton's transformation into one of the city's hottest neighborhoods; and, more recently, Tide Point, a soap factory-turned-office complex that helped make Locust Point trendy, and Montgomery Business Park, a shuttered department store that some believe will have the same effect on Washington Village.

However celebrated, these were all conversions to different uses. One thing that makes the Hippodrome special is that it is being restored to its original purpose as an entertainment showpiece.

"The tie with history is very important," said Ronald Kreitner, the executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc., the nonprofit group coordinating the redevelopment of the decayed area between the central business district and the University of Maryland, Baltimore that includes the theater.

"You're not just saving a building here. You're reviving the culture and history that went with that building."

Though carefully restored, down to such details as a ceiling mural and a half-dozen balconies, theater officials are quick to point out that the theater is up-to-date in its ability to accommodate shows and audiences. The demolition of three storefronts allowed for the construction of a deep stage needed by the more elaborate Broadway-style shows; the incorporation of two historic bank buildings made room for a more expansive lobby and a 450-seat private banquet room. Together, the buildings make up the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

"It's a state-of-the-art, 21st-century theater," said Nancy Roberts, board member of the Hippodrome Foundation Inc., the nonprofit group that oversees the theater.

The $62 million Hippodrome promises to do for theater here what the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, which opened in 1982 in the Mount Royal cultural district, did for the city's orchestra. But Meyerhoff Hall, built through the largesse of the benefactor whose name it bears, was intended to be a top-notch home for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, not a catalyst for community resurrection.

The Hippodrome, in contrast, is intended to be not just a cultural attraction, but also the linchpin for the revival of the long-neglected west side of downtown.

Mark Sissman, president and chief executive of the Hippodrome Foundation, points out that the theater sits between $70 million worth of new buildings at the University of Maryland School of Law and the $80 million Centerpoint residential and retail complex, currently under construction. "That's big stuff for any city," he said.

The hope is that the Hippodrome will do for the west side what Harborplace and the aquarium, opened in 1980 and 1981, did for the Inner Harbor in creating a region-wide destination. But unlike the Hippodrome, the latter two were new buildings.

Others see a key parallel with Oriole Park, which opened in 1992 at a cost of about $200 million for land acquisition and construction, and ushered in a new age of downtown sports palaces and became a draw in its own right with a design that harked back to baseball's past.

"One of the attractions of the theater is its unique architecture," said Sissman. "I think people will come and rave about it, not only for what we have on stage."

Of course, the opening of Oriole Park -- like that of the adjacent Ravens stadium in 1998 -- was tempered by a longing for the abandoned and since-demolished Memorial Stadium.

What makes the Hippodrome special is the way it combines nostalgia with hope -- for the arts as well as its neighborhood.

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