Beauty is ...

Editorial Notebook

June 23, 2007|By Ann LoLordo

It's a building that people love to hate - a fortress-like hulk of concrete rising from the middle of Hopkins Plaza in downtown Baltimore, a former theater that is uninviting and, many say, ugly.

But looks alone shouldn't determine the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre's eligibility as a historic landmark in Baltimore. If the city's landmarks reflected only the popular, aesthetically pleasing, or politically palatable expressions of their time, there would be appreciable gaps in Baltimore's architectural legacy. The practice of landmarking buildings, after all, is to preserve a city's architectural past.

City preservationists have been lax in designating individual landmarks in recent years. But it was an architect's concern about the fate of the darkened Mechanic Theatre that led to its nomination as a possible historic landmark.

"I know it's of a style that to contemporary tastes might look a little different, might need some explaining," says architect Mike Murphy, a member of the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. "It really is considered a first-rate design. The best and brightest of the time were behind it."

The theater opened in 1967, a time when some would have characterized the city center as an urban wasteland. And yet it was among the initial projects that sought to change that image and revitalize the downtown. It was the city's main house for musicals and plays - including the debut of Arthur Miller's "American Clock" - and a cultural refuge if not an oasis that was retired with the opening of the renovated Hippodrome Theatre.

Architect John Johansen designed the Mechanic in the Brutalist style, and its imposing concrete exterior embodies that modern, non-Romantic, proletarian purpose. Walter Schamu, a Baltimore architect, recalls traveling to the city as a University of Pennsylvania student to see the theater in 1968. "This was something," he says.

But others are less impressed by the Mechanic's pedigree, less kind about its appearance, and would prefer a more appealing, useful building to anchor the corner of Charles and Baltimore streets. The Mechanic's new owners are planning an apartment and retail complex there, plans that potentially could be compromised if the building received a special or landmark designation.

Such a designation would require any new development or construction at the site to be reviewed by CHAP. It wouldn't mean the Mechanic would have to remain a theater or an entertainment venue. What would matter is how well the building was adapted to a new use.

G. Martin Moeller Jr., a senior vice president and curator at the National Building Museum, does think the Mechanic is ugly. But that's not the sole measure of its worthiness as a landmark.

"Fortunately, there is ample evidence that talented architects, working with appropriate professional teams, can devise ways to give new life to buildings of historic significance even if they are not especially attractive," he wrote in an e-mail.

A recent example is the renovation of London's Royal Festival Hall, "an unloved 1950s concrete fortress that has just reopened to very positive reviews thanks to a thoughtful and thorough rejuvenation," according to Mr. Moeller.

Civic leaders and preservationists around the country are facing off on the ugly-vs.-significant issue: the Cleveland Trust Tower, a Brutalist skyscraper and the only one designed by architect Marcel Breuer, is slated for demolition, and the Martin Luther King Library in Washington, a mid-20th-century modern example, is under attack.

When CHAP takes up the case of the Mechanic at a July 10 hearing, it will also review for possible landmark status the American Brewery in East Baltimore and the Scottish Rite Temple on North Charles Street. It won't have the last word; both the Planning Commission and the City Council have to concur.

But it would be wise for all to reflect on H. L. Mencken's words on another architectural gem in the city: "All Baltimoreans may be divided into two classes - those who think that the Emerson [Bromo Seltzer] Tower is beautiful, and those who know better." The tower was designated a city landmark in 1976.

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