Panel acts to protect the Mechanic

More alteration barred

landmark status urged

August 15, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

Baltimore's preservation commission took action yesterday to protect the substantially gutted Morris A. Mechanic Theatre from demolition or further alteration by voting unanimously to add it to a "special list" that gives the panel legal authority to approve or block any proposed changes to its exterior, effective immediately.

Despite objections from the building's owners, the panel also voted unanimously to recommend that the 40-year-old building at 1 W. Baltimore St. be added to the city's landmark list, a second action that would give the preservation commission say over how the building could be modified.

The two steps mean that the owners of the vacant theater, who have torn out much of its interior and who oppose landmark designation, cannot obtain additional city permits to raze it or alter its exterior for up to six months, without the commission's consent.

The recommendation to make the theater a local landmark must be approved by Baltimore's Planning Commission, City Council and mayor before it takes effect, but the vote to add the building to a protection list for up to six months does not need approval from any other body.

The votes were seen as a victory for the arts by preservationists who testified in favor of designating the building a landmark, including Harriet Lynn, a local arts consultant who performed at the Mechanic in Hello Dolly! on the theater's opening night in 1967.

"I'm thrilled that we're buying some time," said Lynn, who played Minnie Fay in the musical and now represents a local group called Heritage Theatre Artists' Consortium.

"I'm hoping that there will be a broader discussion about the use of that space," Lynn said. "I don't see why there can't be a marriage of art and commerce at that location. It certainly happens in other cities."

"I'm delighted because we need time to consider other options," said Janet Heller, a Roland Park resident who testified in favor of landmark designation.

"We live in a city where young people are dying at an incredible rate and we are tearing down buildings at an incredible rate. It's a city of destruction," Heller said. "This gives me hope."

Reached at his home in upstate New York, the building's 91-year-old architect, John M. Johansen, said he was grateful to the commission for its actions but believes more work must be done to make the building useful again.

"It's not enough to make it a landmark," he said. "It has to contribute to the life of the area."

Representatives for the group that owns the theater declined to speak at length about the votes but indicated they were not pleased.

Melvin Greenwald, one of the owners, said he was troubled that one commissioner worked behind the scenes to get people to testify in favor of landmark designation. "It was all contrived," he said.

The votes came at the end of a 2 1/2 -hour hearing during which the panel heard testimony from two dozen speakers who argued for and against landmark designation of the 1,600-seat theater, which Johansen designed as a sculptural centerpiece of the 33-acre Charles Center renewal area.

Named for its builder, real estate magnate Morris A. Mechanic, the theater closed in 2004, after the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center opened on Eutaw Street. The theater was sold the next year for $6 million to One West Baltimore Street Associates, a group headed by Melvin and Benjamin Greenwald of Arrow Parking, which operates a garage beneath the theater, and David S. Brown Enterprises.

The new owners have said they want to convert the property to a mixed-use center containing shops, offices, residences and possibly a hotel. Drawings on file with the city indicate that they don't want to raze the theater, but their modifications would change its appearance significantly.

The building was nominated for landmark designation by one member of the preservation commission, Michael Murphy, who voiced concerns this year about the building's fate because it was not protected by landmark status. Murphy attended the hearing but abstained when votes were taken.

Many of the people who testified against the landmark listing said they were representing businesses near the theater or business groups, including the Downtown Partnership and Westside Renaissance.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, said he does not believe the Mechanic was designed well or is worth protecting. He said it turns its back on Charles Street and does not lend itself to reuse.

Arthur Adler, vice president of Brown Enterprises, said his group tried unsuccessfully for 18 months to find theater groups that might want to perform at the Mechanic. After that, he said, the team began exploring other options.

Fred Shoken, a city planner assigned to the preservation commission, said the building meets the city's criteria for landmark designation in several ways, including its architectural significance, its association with significant people and its connections with an important period in the life of the city.

Johns Hopkins, the director of Baltimore Heritage, a local preservation advocacy group, said the panel's actions don't mean that the building can't be altered for new uses, but it does mean that any redevelopment plans must be reviewed and approved in a public forum. "Landmarking is not petrification," he said. "Changes can be allowed."

W. Boulton Kelly, an architect who studied under Johansen at Harvard in the 1950s, said he believes the commission took the right action. Whatever happens on that corner, he said, "it needs to be world-class."

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