Heightened drama


A resignation and disagreements among officials delays the next stage for the shuttered Mechanic Theatre

August 04, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Baltimore's Morris A. Mechanic Theatre has been closed for four years, but it's still a source of high drama for those curious about what will happen to the key downtown property.

A year after Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation recommended that the dormant theater at 1 W. Baltimore St. be added to the city's landmark list as a way to protect it from demolition, the building's owners have come up with a redevelopment plan that would keep it standing, although not as a theater.

But the owners are having difficulty getting their plans through the city's design review process. The preservation commissioners argue that their panel should see the latest plans before they go to another public body that was scheduled to discuss the project this week.

Preservationists say they are concerned because Douglas McCoach, who recently resigned as planning director, took the position that the 1967 theater should not be added to the city's landmark list, even though the preservation commission operates within the Planning Department and its members voted unanimously that the theater meets the city's criteria for landmark designation.

The planning director has never before declined to support the preservation commission's recommendations for landmark designation since the commission came under the purview of the Planning Department two years ago.

McCoach's sudden resignation in July further complicated the process, since he had taken the lead in pushing for a design solution that would satisfy both the preservationists and downtown business leaders who want to see the theater property redeveloped. McCoach has said he resigned to pursue opportunities in the private sector and intends to leave office in mid-August.

Also last month, city officials announced that they want to replace Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena with a larger arena costing up to $300 million. Because the Mechanic is fewer than two blocks from the arena, that decision potentially makes the theater more valuable as a redevelopment site.

In the meantime, the theater's original architect, John Johansen, now 92 and largely retired in upstate New York, has developed his own conceptual plan for an addition. He says he believes it is possible to introduce new uses to the property without destroying the integrity of the structure but would like to be consulted about how that's done.

The result is that the vacant theater is likely to sit vacant for at least several more months, while city officials decide how and by whom the new development plan gets reviewed - and whether the theater must be treated as a historic landmark during the process.

"What a city!" Johansen exclaimed last week, when informed of the project's twists and turns.

Sculptural centerpiece

Built by Baltimore businessman Morris Mechanic, the 1,600-seat theater was designed to be the sculptural centerpiece of the 33-acre Charles Center renewal area downtown - a relatively low object surrounded by taller office buildings and hotels.

The theater was a prime example of the architectural movement known as New Brutalism because of its rough concrete surface and free-form shapes that expressed on the outside what was going on inside. Johansen called it "functional expressionism."

The Mechanic closed in 2004 after the restored Hippodrome Theatre opened on Eutaw Street. Mechanic's estate sold it the next year for $6 million to a group made up of the principals of Arrow Parking, which operates the garage beneath the theater, and David Brown Enterprises, a Baltimore County-based firm that has had previous run-ins with preservationists over the 1996 demolition of an 18th-century dwelling, the Samuel Owings House.

The latest plan, by Washington architect Shalom Baranes, calls for the theater's shell to be preserved as part of a mixed-use complex that would contain retail space at street level, parking underground and a 30-story residential and hotel tower that would rise at the southwest corner of Baltimore and Charles streets.

The residential tower would be constructed east of the theater's fly loft, which would be saved, and include entrance lobbies facing Charles Street, which previously had been the backside of the theater. The interior of the theater, which has been gutted, would contain one or more stores, with a primary entrance on the west side of the building, where theatergoers once entered. More retail spaces would line the building's north and south sides, adding life to Baltimore Street and Hopkins Plaza.

McCoach said he has seen the latest plans and believes the architect succeeded in meeting the preservationists' goal of saving the most important features of the building's exterior while introducing uses that will revitalize the area. It's "dramatically better" than an earlier design by a different architect, he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.