New group to revamp Mechanic

Architecture

Architecture Column

December 31, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

Four months after Baltimore's preservation commission voted to add the vacant Morris A. Mechanic Theatre to an emergency landmark list in order to prevent demolition or defacement of the 1967 building, a new architect has been identified to come up with a revised plan for converting it to different uses.

Shalom Baranes Associates, an award-winning, Washington-based firm with a strong track record in historic preservation and adaptive reuse, has been hired to take over design work on the theater, for many years a venue for traveling Broadway shows and other live performances downtown. It replaces J.T. Fishman and Associates, an Owings Mills firm that prepared a preliminary plan for renovating and expanding the building but never saw the plan win approval.

Representatives of Baltimore's preservation commission, which added the theater to its "special list" on Aug. 14, said during a recent meeting that they've been told the building's owners tapped Baranes to develop a new redevelopment plan for the dormant building at 1 W. Baltimore St.

The theater was designed by internationally renowned architect John M. Johansen to be the sculptural centerpiece of Baltimore's 33-acre Charles Center renewal area downtown. It is notable for its exposed concrete surface - one characteristic of a design movement known as Brutalism - and protruding exterior forms that express the spaces inside. Johansen called his approach "Functional Expressionism."

The theater, closed after the larger France Merrick Performing Arts Center opened in 2004 on Eutaw Street, was acquired in 2005 by One West Baltimore Street Associates, headed by Ben and Melvin Greenwald of Arrow Parking and David S. Brown Enterprises. That team has plans to convert it from an arts center to a mixed use complex containing retail space, residences and possibly a hotel.

Shalom Baranes Associates is a 100-person firm headed by Shalom Baranes, a 57-year-old architect who serves as a trustee of the D.C. Preservation League, an advocacy group originally known as Don't Tear It Down! Baranes also serves as chairman of the preservation league's design review panel.

His firm's projects have included rehabilitation of the Warner Theatre in Washington, design of the 12-story Atlantic Building office tower next to Ford's Theatre in Washington, and a variety of upscale residential projects in and around the nation's capital. It has won more than 100 design awards.

At least half its work, Baranes said, involves preservation or rehabilitation of existing buildings and work within historic districts or contexts, including adding new buildings to existing structures. In all, it has designed more than 20 million square feet of space with a market value of more than $3 billion. The Mechanic renovation would be its first major project in Baltimore.

Baranes said last week that he is optimistic his firm can come up with a design that will please the owners, city planners, preservationists and business leaders who don't want to see a key corner of downtown Baltimore remain dormant.

"I do understand it is a very important building," he said of the theater. "It is an iconic building from the Brutalist period. We will treat it in an appropriate fashion."

Baranes said he was brought to the project by one of the developers, Brown, for whom he has worked in the past. He said his job is to help determine the mix of uses that would go inside the building and how to adapt the building to accommodate them. He noted that the theater's interior has been removed, so restoring the building for theater use is not an option. He said demolition of the building is not an option he will be exploring, either. Other than that, "nothing has been determined yet," he said. Brown "is very open to ideas at this point."

The preservation commission voted to add the Mechanic theater to its "special list" after seeing preliminary plans by Fishman that called for much of the original exterior to be obscured by new construction. When a building is added to the city's special list, it means the owners cannot change the exterior without approval from the preservation commission. The panel also voted to add the theater to its permanent landmark list, a process that also requires approval from the planning commission, City Council and mayor.

Michael Murphy, a Baltimore architect who serves on the city's preservation commission, said he was encouraged to hear that Baranes is working on the project because he has a reputation for treating landmark-quality buildings with sensitivity while introducing new uses.

Another change in the development team is the departure of Arthur Adler, a vice president of David S. Brown Enterprises, who left the company this year. Adler was instrumental in seeking tenants for the Mechanic project, and he testified before the preservation commission in August, asking members not to designate the building a city landmark. Development partner Ben Greenwald said Adler's departure would not affect the project.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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