Landmark in all but name

Our view: Theater needs preservation everyone can live with

August 17, 2008

It's certainly not to everyone's taste, but there's no doubt the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre at Baltimore and Charles streets qualifies as a genuine architectural landmark. Built in 1967 in a Brutalist style, it's neither sleek nor inviting by today's standards. Yet it commemorates an important chapter in Baltimore history that ought to be preserved.

The question is how, and preservationists, city planning officials and the property's developers seem unable to agree on that. The city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation wants landmark status for the building to protect it from demolition. The developers plan to convert it into hotel, residential and commercial space that preserves the building's original character. But they oppose landmark status because it adds another layer of design review. City planners desperately want the downtown revitalized. They insist the former theater's architecture can be saved even if it isn't officially declared a landmark.

This time, the city may be right, which gives rise to a curious irony: The best way to get all three parties on the same page may be to treat the Mechanic exactly as if it were a landmark - but without calling it one, at least for now.

The Mechanic sits in Baltimore's central business district urban renewal areawhich gives the city broad authority to reject designs that conflict with the plan's goals. One of those goals of the urban renewal plan happens to be architectural preservation. Preservationists may see a compromise as less than ideal, and worry about setting an awkward precedent. But if it leads to an outcome that everyone can live with, there's nothing to prevent them from seeking landmark status for the Mechanic at some later date. A landmark building by any other name is still a gem on the city's skyline.

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