For years, the turreted building so familiar on North Main Street was referred to as the castle. But after decades of gradual decline and neglect, the Lt. Gen. Milton A. Reckord Armory more resembled a dungeon.
That changed during the past six months, when Bel Air used a $220,000 state grant to renovate the two-story granite structure, transforming it from a shabby and limited gathering place into a revitalized, much-needed community center.
"In the '60s and '70s, this building was the town focal point," said Christopher Schlehr, town administrator. "It can be today part of a vibrant Main Street. We are going to use every square inch of it, and it will help bring more businesses back to Main Street."
The project included upgrading the heating, electrical and fire alarm systems in the nearly century-old building, installing a commercial kitchen, refurbishing the auditorium and stage, adding handicapped-accessible bathrooms, and applying fresh paint everywhere.
"Every room used to be dingy brown," said Stephen D. Kline, Bel Air's deputy director of public works.
The work is expected to be wrapped up in time for a dinner theater production next month. Several performing arts groups have worked on Remembering Uncle Scrooge and will present the show on the armory's refurbished stage, which less than a year ago was a cluster of offices walled off from the auditorium.
"Actually scheduling something gave everyone a push to get the renovation done on time," said Sallee Filkins, the town's former economic development administrator who is now executive director of the Center for Visual and Performing Arts. "This is just one of many events that will bring people back downtown."
Town work crews tore out the offices, restored the wood flooring for the stage and installed new lighting and a framework from which to hang backdrops for theatrical performances. They painted the auditorium's wainscoting white and the molding green.
"We tried to do as much as possible in house to keep down costs," Schlehr said of the work done by town employees.
The installation of acoustical panels eliminated the "sound bounce" that made it nearly impossible to hear at stage productions, dances and a rally for Harford County's world champion ice skater, Kimmie Meissner.
"There was a constant echo," Kline said. "It was like the Grand Canyon in here."
The 86 acoustical tiles are suspended from the ceiling and mounted on the back wall.
"We couldn't have performances or dances, nothing from the stage," Schlehr said. "Now there is no bounce."
The auditorium, which doubles as a gym, can accommodate about 400 seats. It will be open from noon to 5 p.m. today for the Chesapeake Cancer Alliance's Festival of Trees. The dinner theater production on Dec. 14, 16 and 17 will play to 300 guests at each seating.
Numerous events are scheduled for next year. With air conditioning made possible by a $100,000 state grant, the armory might be able to remain open during the summer.
The armory has been a focal point on Main Street since it was built in 1915.
The Guard, which drilled there a few times a month, shared the space for town events. As Bel Air grew in size and population, ballroom dances, professional sports contests and high school reunions found other venues. Town officials are hoping to draw on that nostalgia and bring such events back downtown.
The town is planning to keep rents reasonable enough to attract community groups but practical enough to pay for the estimated $80,000 in annual maintenance and utility costs, Schlehr said.
"The rates are low, and it's a great space," Schlehr said.
The town's signature events, such as the Chocolate Festival, along with recreation basketball and YMCA events, were held at the armory during the renovation. This month, a magic show drew an audience of more than 200.
"We would like to double the use," said Jim Welch, Bel Air's public relations officer. "Hopefully, all the events will draw attention to the building and get more people to use it."
On Feb. 17, the town will officially open a visitors center in two rooms off the armory's main entrance. The volunteer staff plans to be operating by mid-January.
Across the black-and-white tiled foyer from the visitors center, the town set aside space for Maryland National Guard recruiting offices.
"The lease requires two offices, storage and three parking spaces," Kline said. "It's not a bad deal for us for $1 a year."
The Guard, which had outgrown the armory and moved its equipment and many functions to Aberdeen Proving Ground, signed a five-year nominal lease with the town in March 2005. When the lease expires, the Guard will maintain its offices but will turn the building over to the town in perpetuity.