Endangered: Morris A. Mechanic Theater

10/07/2014
By Preservation Maryland

The Morris A. Mechanic Theater in Baltimore City was listed as an Endangered Maryland site in 2014.

HISTORY

When the Morris A. Mechanic Theater in downtown Baltimore open in 1967, it was heralded as the centerpiece of Charles Center. Developers and politicians alike believed Charles Center, a 33 acre urban renewal project, would reverse the trend of declining commercial investment in downtown Baltimore. This redevelopment plan included the construction of three plazas, numerous walkways and ample underground parking, and at its core sat a theater that became the premiere venue for live theater in Baltimore. Morris Mechanic, a prosperous business man who owned theaters across the region, hired the architect John Johansen in the early 1960s to design the theater at the corner of Baltimore and Charles Streets. Although many people are turned off by the Brutalist stye of the building, Johansen saw the theater as an example of functional expressionism. When viewed from the front, the exterior of the building reflects the shape of the theater inside and the onlooker is not distracted by ornamentation.

SIGNIFICANCE

The Mechanic Theater is historically and architecturally important in consideration of the following:

THREAT

The theater closed in 1998 because it was too small to handle the large Broadway production now being produced. One of the major reasons people dislike this building is the fact that it turns its back to Charles Street. The front entrance to the building faces a plaza on the interior of the block which at the time it was constructed was the focal point of the Charles Center project. Today, people recognize the value of walkable streets in urban settings and they no longer want the windowless back side of the theater facing a major thoroughfare in downtown Baltimore. Currently the Morris A. Mechanic Theater is threatened with demolition. A 2012 a petition to give Baltimore City Landmark status to the building was denied and in March 2014 a six-month waiting period on demolition expired. Nothing prevents the current owner of the site, Arrow Parking, from demolishing the building.

GOALS

Whether you love the building or hate it, everyone can agree that the flat concrete walls and minimal decoration on the exterior of the theater make it stand out among the many late 19th and early 20th century buildings in downtown Baltimore. The American Institute of Architects, Baltimore Chapter, and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation nominated the Morris A. Mechanic to Endangered Maryland with the hope that attention would revive interest in the adaptive reuse rather than the demolition of the Mechanic Theater. In 2012, the developer of the site hired a student of Johansen, to design a building for the site that adaptively reused the theater as retail and lobby space for a new high-rise tower. This design preserved this important Brutilist building and met the needs of the developer, but he has decided instead to demolish the Morris A. Mechanic.

To get involved, contact Kathleen Lane klane@aiabalt.com

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