A Star Is Reborn

A historic theater finds new life as a beacon for Baltimore's future.

A Dramatic Rebirth

A newly restored Hippodrome Theatre complex is a bridge to both a glorious past and a hopeful future.

Cover Story

February 08, 2004|By Review by Edward Gunts

The show begins long before the curtain rises.

That's all one needs to know to appreciate the dramatic transformation of Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre, which reopens Tuesday after a $62 million restoration and modernization.

The architects and artisans who labored for months to rescue the historic theater at 12 N. Eutaw St. didn't simply return it to its original appearance, though that certainly was done. They made it the centerpiece of a larger environment in which every inch works to prepare audiences for the Broadway-style performances and other shows that they have come to see.

The result is an urban entertainment center with the splendor and opulence one associates with great theaters of the past and a backstage that can accommodate the most elaborate traveling productions. Spacious lobbies and lounges offer perches where patrons can people-watch during intermission and linger after the show to savor impressive views of the city. Though less than five blocks from the venue it's replacing -- the 1967 Morris A. Mechanic Theatre -- it's a quantum leap forward in terms of ambience, amenities and technical capabilities.

To audiences starved for a first-class performing space in downtown Baltimore, the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center represents the happiest of endings -- a grand old theater that has been made infinitely more beautiful and functional for today's audiences and performers. Move over, National Aquarium and Oriole Park. Baltimore's newest urban renaissance star is born.

The primary challenge of reviving the Hippodrome was the need to take a theater that was designed for the vaudeville era and make it work for the video age, without destroying the character and detail that made it worth saving in the first place.

As designed by the noted Scottish architect Thomas Lamb, the richly embellished auditorium was always the building's best feature, a riot of garlands and putti and plaster ornamentation that provided a lavish backdrop for any production.

But the original Hippodrome didn't have the creature comforts that today's theater patrons expect, from generous lobbies and concessions stands to adequate parking and restrooms. It also didn't have the back-of-the-house facilities needed for contemporary touring productions, including loading docks for 18-wheelers; high-tech lighting and sound equipment; and ample dressing and rehearsal rooms.

The solution from the design team -- headed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (HHPA) of New York, with Murphy & Dittenhafer during the preliminary phase and Schamu Machowski Greco on construction administration -- was to make the theater part of a block-long complex that would contain all the features that the original theater lacked.

Donated to the state in 1997, the Hippodrome is one of three historic buildings that have been connected and combined with other properties to create one cohesive performing arts center that fills most of the area bounded by Eutaw, Fayette, Paca and Baltimore streets. The project was carried out as a joint venture of the Hippodrome Foundation, Maryland Stadium Authority and Clear Channel Entertainment.

Going outside the shell of the Hippodrome allowed the architects to restore the auditorium to its original appearance, and then to add contemporary features around the perimeter. It's not unlike Oriole Park, where the old-fashioned seating bowl and playing field are surrounded by modern- day pedestrian concourses with their requisite vending areas and restrooms.

What makes the France-Merrick Center particularly impressive is the way that the architects combined new and old to play up the historic theater. Although the transformation includes restoration of the three historic structures, more than 60 percent of the project actually was new construction. In making changes, the architects didn't upstage the original buildings, as some designers might have done. Instead, they created a hierarchy of spaces that build up to the clear highlight of the project, the painstakingly restored 1914 auditorium.

This approach is characteristic of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, a national leader in theater preservation. Its architects maintain that the job of theater architecture is largely to create an "aura of anticipation" before the performance begins, a sort of architectural drum-roll leading up to the event on stage. For them, the show begins when patrons approach the theater.

"It's a total experience," says architect Hugh Hardy, principal in charge of the Hippodrome transformation for HHPA. "People forget that. They think the show begins when the performance starts, but that's not so."

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