In That Grand Venue, You Could Almost Smell The Corsages

April 11, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

An article in Friday's Baltimore Sun told how Zurich American will be moving its city work force from Keswick Road in the Wyman Park-University Parkway area to quarters in Baltimore County. I thought of an afternoon, nearly 40 years ago, when I took a last look at that same site.

In the late 1960s, Zurich's predecessor, the old Maryland Casualty Co., was repositioning itself on the 23-acre work campus it owned at the corner of 40th Street and Keswick Road. Its main building went on to become The Rotunda, which made a successful debut in 1971 as a shopping venue.

What fascinated me - and what was then about to be demolished to make way for the buildings that the insurance firm is now leaving - was a lesser-known structure known as the Maryland Casualty Auditorium.

I was not one to break into abandoned buildings. The doors and windows were open. This marvelous structure seemed to beckon me inside.

The 1921 auditorium (it was also called the employees' "clubhouse") was a revelation. At the corner of 40th street was a large dance floor built of hard maple. There were Adamesque plaster motifs around, and it all seemed like a grand, oversized dining room in a Roland Park-Guilford house.

The dance area could be rented and became a favorite of local high schools and colleges for their social events. It didn't take much to imagine an orchestra, tuxedos on a couple of hundred men and the ladies in the long gowns. You could almost smell the scent of the gardenia corsages.

Inside the front door to the right was a sweeping, 1,500-seat auditorium, row after row of seats, a stage, maroon curtains, a pipe organ and huge hanging chandeliers. It was all left open - the elements coming in, awaiting demolition.

The old Baltimore Civic Opera Company gave early performances here. It was a favorite of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad glee club. When Evelyn Waugh, the British novelist, toured Baltimore, he spoke here. Today, I'd pay big money to see an operetta like Rio Rita or The Desert Song performed on that stage. I'd love to see the Gilbert and Sullivan shows produced by our Young Victorian Theatre Co. here.

The 1960s were a nasty time for Baltimore-built history. So many landmarks we would praise and preserve today disappeared, often with no opposition.

But cities are all about change. Consider this 1925 quote from The Sun: "Back in 1919, when the late John T. Stone, then president of the [Maryland Casualty] company, announced plans to move from their building at Baltimore and South streets, the proposal seemed so radical it literally took the breath away from the city's business community. Such a proposition was unheard of, that of a flourishing corporation, closely associated with the financial life of a city, should move into the country, far from the pulse of commercial life."

Mr. Stone and his architects gave Baltimore a beautiful work campus (there were even employee tennis courts) that performed for 50 years. I shook my head that day. I wondered why on 23 acres another spot couldn't be found for some new office buildings. But in a few weeks, the auditorium was cleared and a nondescript office rose in its place.

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