Staging another comeback

February 14, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre isn't the only old movie palace in town that's reopening to the public this week.

The owner of the Parkway Theater at 3-5 W. North Ave. will open it from 3 p.m. to midnight today as part of the second annual "Gotta Have Art" festivities in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

Charles Dodson, an entrepreneur and artist who bought the theater in 2002, is working to transform it into a setting for jazz and classical-music performances, literary readings, art exhibits and other cultural events.

He is opening the theater for nine hours today to give people a chance to see it before renovation work begins. Musicians are scheduled to perform starting in the late afternoon, and visual artists will have work on display. Admission is free, although visitors will be asked to make a donation at the door for the musicians.

This will be the first time in at least a decade that the Parkway has been open to the public.

"It's a chance to see a work in progress," Dodson said. "Last year, I had just bought the place, and it wasn't at all presentable. Since so many people have asked to see the theater, this will be a good chance to see it in its raw state, before any serious restoration work takes place. It's an opportunity to discover something that's almost been in a time capsule."

The Parkway was designed by Oliver B. Wight and opened in 1915 as a first-class movie house. The previous year had brought the debut of the Hippodrome, the Eutaw Street vaudeville palace that reopened Tuesday after a $62 million modernization to prepare it for Broadway-style productions and other shows.

The Parkway was built by Henry Webb, who also constructed the McHenry Theater in South Baltimore. According to historian Robert Headley, the Parkway cost about $120,000 and was modeled after two theaters, the West End (later called the Rialto) Theater in London and the Strand Theater in New York. Webb's brother, George, was an inventor who used the Parkway as a testing ground for his movie sound system.

According to Headley, the theater was later acquired by Charles Whitehurst's circuit, which included many of the first-run theaters downtown. After Whitehurst died in 1924, it became part of the Loew's organization. It was converted to an art theater in the 1950s and its name was changed to the 5 West. It ceased full-time operation as a movie house in the late 1970s and has been the subject of several restoration attempts, none successful.

Dodson said he first toured the Parkway when he was searching for a warehouse that could contain a studio and workshop for a business of his. Although the Parkway did not suit those needs, he said, he fell in love with the theater and arranged to buy it from a group of Korean-Americans who had begun to turn its lobby into an Asian fast-food market.

Dodson also owns an apartment building at 1822 N. Charles St. and a parking lot off Maryland Avenue. His vision is to combine them with the theater to create a showcase for an array of "nonstandard" offerings in music and other arts. He contends that young people would be more inclined to stay in Baltimore after college if they felt the city offered more from a cultural standpoint. He hopes to cultivate relationships with the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Peabody Institute and the Johns Hopkins University, among others.

"We're losing too many talented people who are leaving Baltimore because there's not enough to keep them here," he said. "This is primarily a place to introduce and invigorate the arts for the people of Baltimore who want to appreciate them on an ongoing basis. It's not ever going to be so fancy that's it's going to be outside the budget of the average city dweller."

The Parkway is one of 19 properties that the Baltimore Development Corp. wants authority to condemn, acquire and offer for redevelopment as part of an effort to rejuvenate the area around Charles Street and North Avenue. Others include the former Chesapeake Restaurant at 1701-09 N. Charles St. and the former Chateau Hotel at the northwest corner of North Avenue and Charles Street.

The City Council has not yet passed legislation authorizing the condemnations, and leaders of the development agency have indicated that they would not move ahead with acquisition plans for any given property if they see that its current owner is making progress on renovating it in a way that's consistent with the city's goals for the arts district, a 100-acre parcel primarily north and west of Pennsylvania Station.

Dodson said he is working full-time on the theater and is confident he will be able to satisfy city officials that his plan will be carried out and will be in keeping with their vision for the area.

He said he already has spent more than $500,000 to buy and clean up the theater and is working with Steve Ziger of Ziger-Snead Architects to determine the scope of renovation work needed on the theater and develop a master plan for the surrounding area, a construction timetable and cost projections.

Although the building is in sound condition structurally and much of its decorative detail remains, he said, it needs cosmetic and technical upgrades. He already has refurbished the front windows over the entrance, repaired leaks in the roof and removed 20 tractor-trailer loads of debris.

While today's opening will help show city officials and others that he's making progress, Dodson said he's eager to meet people who share his vision for the city and the project.

"It's a concept in evolution," he said. "We want to get as many people there as possible. That's what it's all about."

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