Cusack plan for Senator goes before CHAP

New operators hope for commission approval for redevelopment of city landmark

August 10, 2010|By Michael Sragow, Baltimore Sun

The operators of the Senator Theatre, James "Buzz" Cusack and his daughter Kathleen, and their designer, Alex Castro, have a bold new redevelopment plan that calls for the immediate construction of a second theater in the south end of the building.

They will keep the original theater's design intact while restoring and enhancing its 1939 features, performing required renovations, and building a crepe shop, restaurant and additional restrooms in the north end of the building.

The theater will open soon and stay open while the construction goes on.

This is the heart of the plan that Kathleen Cusack, Castro and Castro's architectural collaborator, Joe Adamczyk, will present for the approval of the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) at 3 p.m. on Tuesday. (James Cusack, a CHAP member, will recuse himself from this hearing.)

It marks a major shift from earlier plans that had proposed a second theater in the future. Those plans would have required the Cusacks to destroy the original 1939 ladies room and relocate the women's facilities in order to expand the stalls to the number required by code.

That alteration became controversial with theater-preservation advocates, especially when word spread that the Cusacks would replace the old ladies' lounge and rest room with a crepe shop.

But Kathleen Cusack said late Monday, "Building the second theater now will provide us with the extra space we need for an additional ladies' room with the number of stalls that can't fit in the existing ladies room." The revised plan locates the crepe shop, restaurant and new restrooms in a north wing, in a part of the building that had been under-used, said Cusack, as a trash and storage area.

"We decided it makes more sense to do all the redevelopment and renovations collectively, not piecemeal. We would like to get started and get it all done," Cusack said. "Our objective is to be as consistent with the historical fabric of the theater as we possibly can while bringing the building up to code and putting it in compliance with the American Disabilities Act."

On Monday, Castro called the Senator "one of the marvels of Baltimore" and added that "working on it humbles you. It means so much to so many people. I took my own kids there. I have memories of going there that are profound."

Castro envisions a second screen with stadium seating for 100-120 people, "perfect for specialized screenings, or for moving over films that are on the wane in the big theater." The one Senator entrance would still be through the theater's grand rotunda."Everyone should have the experience of walking through that rotunda," Castro said. And contrary to web reports, "What we're doing to the rotunda is exactly what should be done to the rotunda: nothing."

Nothing, that is, except seeing what decorative beauties may be hidden deep inside. "There was paneling in the rotunda that had been covered up; I'd like to get under and see what it was like and possibly bring it back. Anything that can take us to the essence of the place — that's the music of the design." Castro says that he won't tamper with the building's original facades. Inside he hopes to explore original surfaces that have been coated with paint, tile or wallpaper.

Castro and the Cusacks may bring the Senator closer to the way it looked in 1939 than it has been for decades. Castro says that going to the Senator "is not just about coming for the big screen — it's about going back in time. The Senator isn't just a building, it's a vocabulary. What you have to do is document that vocabulary, then be able to to use it in a sentence. But all the vocabulary is right there if you look for it."

Kathleen Cusack said Monday, "We are 'in the building' and expect to be hiring and training staff, getting a website developed, and installing a new electrical system and point of sale operations for credit card purchases in the coming weeks." The tentative date for re-opening is sometime in September.

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