Looking back at the Mechanic's future

August 26, 2008|By Michael V. Murphy

Fast forward 50 years, to 2058. The Baltimore region's population has doubled, and the port is booming in the post-petroleum era. Mass transit has finally taken hold, and the city's population is over 1 million. In the surrounding counties, most houses, 50 to 60 years old, with vinyl siding and vinyl windows, are looking shabby. In contrast, most city neighborhoods have become historic districts, especially those from the 1920s through 1950s - totally rehabbed and looking great.

At a neighborhood school, a teacher explains that Baltimore was not always this way. The economy thrived in the 1950s, but by the 1960s many businesses and residents were fleeing to the suburbs. The legacy of Jim Crow was still alive, despite the efforts of hometown hero Thurgood Marshall. A young president asked citizens what they could do for their country, and young people across the nation rallied for change, much like the early 2000s.

The teacher explains that the winds of change were so strong that every aspect of society was affected, and none more so than the arts. Movements of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art dominated museums and galleries, and in architecture, Brutalism described a movement brutally honest about its purpose and construction, avoiding any hint of sham commercialism or false historicism.

In Baltimore, a group of business leaders, the Greater Baltimore Committee, supported by Mayors Theodore R. McKeldin and Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., acted to reverse the decline of downtown through the largest single project ever undertaken, Charles Center. For the centerpiece of this 30-acre development, they audaciously proposed not a shopping center or an office building, but a theater - recognizing that any city will surely die without the arts at its very heart. Morris Mechanic, local theater operator, with architect John Johansen, produced a tour de force of design for the new theater, in raw concrete bearing the marks of its wooden formwork, a three-dimensional expression of the essence of a theater, with stage, auditorium and lobby clearly visible on the exterior. The Mechanic was praised and honored for its design and became Baltimore's premier venue for live theater and the symbol of Baltimore's revival.

Moving forward, the teacher notes that by the early 2000s, the Mechanic was considered too small to handle Broadway shows. The Hippodrome became the new venue for Broadway, and the Mechanic sat empty - its significance forgotten by many Baltimoreans until the city's independent Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) voted unanimously to make the Mechanic a Baltimore landmark, in recognition of its architectural, historical and cultural significance.

Looking back to 2008, it is amazing that the city government opposed landmark designation and attempted to place the Mechanic's future in the hands of economic development officials. Fortunately, this "fox in the henhouse" approach was soundly rejected by the city's independent Planning Commission, and with widespread support from historic neighborhoods; the City Council affirmed the Mechanic's landmark status. With many uses since then, including an ill-fated retail scheme, the Mechanic now houses a variety of arts venues, including galleries, small theaters and cafes. A handsome, 30-story tower has been added, facing Charles Street, while the historic exterior of the theater has been carefully preserved, under CHAP's watchful eye.

The teacher sums up her lesson by saying, "Children, when you look at the Mechanic, try and think about the 1960s, that tumultuous time, and the courage and vision of Baltimore's leaders." Looking back, they might also give a nod to the Planning Commission and the City Council of 2008, for rejecting the notion that dollars always come first, and making the Mechanic a landmark.

Michael V. Murphy is a principal with an architectural firm and a member of Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. His e-mail is mvm@murphdittarch.com.

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