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The Arts

The Brutal Truth

Letting The Public Have Its Say About The Morris A. Mechanic Theatre

Emily Flake

By John Barry | Posted 8/8/2007

CHAP considers landmark designation for the Mechanic Theatre

3:30 p.m. Aug. 14 in the Phoebe Stanton Conference Room, eighth floor of the Department of Planning, 417 E. Fayette St.

One thing is clear about the 40-year-old Morris A. Mechanic Theatre on this steaming July afternoon. Even as it approaches middle age, the building still raises passions.

"To be honest, it should get razed--then put in a new civic center," says MTA union electrician Charlie Hamilton between shifts. He's sitting on a wall across from the Mechanic at the corner of Charles and Baltimore streets. He shrugs. "I mean, what's the point?"

Almost immediately, his co-worker Eric Johnson intervenes. "Keep it," he says. "Just give it a little sprucing up."

The yellowed, poured-concrete 1,614-seat theater--with its sharp, asymmetric angles, hidden walkways, and in-your-face functionalism--was for decades Baltimore's only professional theater and is credited with reigniting Baltimore's cultural scene in the late 1960s and early '70s. But the theater has been empty now for three years, since the Hippodrome Theatre became home to Baltimore's touring Broadway productions. A few ground-level shops and offices and a subway entrance are all that remain of what once was a cornerstone of Baltimore's downtown revival. On the outside of the theater, facing Charles Street, hangs a large banner announcing the advent of a new developer: David S. Brown Enterprises Ltd.

David S. Brown doesn't have definite plans for the structure. But when it became clear that the developer was considering converting the Mechanic into a "big box" store with a 10-story residential project, the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) recommended the theater for historical landmark status. On Aug. 14, the commission holds a public hearing at the city Department of Planning. If the recommendation is approved by the commission, and later by the Planning Board and City Council, the Mechanic will be granted landmark status. After that, any developer who wants to change the building structurally will have to adhere to the guidelines of that landmark designation, which mandates that changes respect the Mechanic's architectural integrity.

So is the Mechanic art? For the moment, the debate over landmark status has also given the city a chance to ask the question that people have been asking themselves since the unveiling of the theater's design in 1967. Is it one of the country's prize examples of modernist architecture? Or is it, as Hecht Co. executive J. Jefferson Miller Jr. famously noted in 1967, a "poached egg on toast"?

The architect himself, New York-based John M. Johansen, born in 1916, never really considered it his role to massage people's aesthetic sensibilities. He was one of the poster boys of post-war American modernism, working with big names such as Walter Gropius and Philip Johnson. (Johnson himself recommended Johansen after turning down the Mechanic commission himself). In contrast to grander modernist architectural visions--exemplified by New York's Lincoln Center and Washington's Kennedy Center--Johansen remained edgy and challenging. "Some architects in the United States are searching for beauty, but I am not one of them," he said in an interview with Paul Heyer in 1966's Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America.

What he was searching for is a little harder to put your finger on. Johansen had his own term for his work: functional expressionism. It's classified by CHAP as "Brutalist"--a school that based its aesthetic principles more on function and less on exterior decoration. Often Brutalism is identified with large, faceless structures that began to dominate housing projects and universities in the '70s.

Klaus Philipsen, of Philipsen Architects in downtown Baltimore, and a past CHAP adviser, says the Mechanic resisted that trend. "There are many people who don't like that style because they associate it with third- or fourth-tier architects who have turned buildings into bunkers," he says. "The Mechanic is more of a sculpture, really."

And although he admits it may not be his style, Philipsen says the structure of the Mechanic should remain intact. "No generation should think it has all the answers," he says. "I'm old enough to remember what used to be in vogue. Back then, everyone wanted to tear down everything Victorian. Now many people have the same reaction to modernism."

Philipsen notes that the Mechanic has one major flaw: that it may not be faced in the right direction. Charles Center, where the entrance to the theater looks out, was built as a city center in the late '60s. That strategy was in line with the then prevalent urban-design paradigm for large open spaces at city centers. Charles Center was going to be the anchor of a new pedestrian hub, complete with skywalks shuttling pedestrians toward the city's new core.

That didn't happen, though. Like Oldtown Mall on North Gay Street (built around the same time, and now almost a ghost town), Charles Center is not the vibrant gathering place it set out to be. Despite all the big ambitions, it remains hidden from downtown pedestrians--a large, block-size plaza scattered with benches and a few tables and a square fountain in the middle. The most vital view of Johansen's design--the Mechanic's open, somewhat jagged upper level framed by large, unmatched columns--can only be appreciated by whoever wanders across the plaza. Most commuters rarely see it from that angle; instead they look at the walls of gray, rough-hewn concrete from Charles Street.

And on a mid-July lunch hour on the blocks surrounding the Mechanic, opinions about the theater proliferate, and what Philipsen says about its unfortunate positioning holds true. The most friendly appraisals of the theater generally come from people looking at it from Charles Center.

One pinstriped gentleman sitting in the shade outside the Fallon Federal Building across from the theater, who asks not to be identified by name, says he's been taking his lunch breaks here for a while. And when asked about the Mechanic, he sounds like he's talking about an old girlfriend: "I love the theater," he offers. "It's more intimate than the Hippodrome, the seating is really nice. There's nothing that 10,000 gallons of Day-Glo paint won't fix, but yeah, it's beautiful."

Barbara Ward, who works with the Maryland State Department of Education, sounds like she's talking about an eccentric relative. "They should leave it alone," she says, laughing. "It's a little weird, though."

Tom Rice, of Boozer Real Estate Services, remembers it fondly from its heyday as a theater, when it led Baltimore's cultural revitalization: He saw Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! there on its first national tour three decades ago. "The building is an eye-catcher, definitely unique," Rice says. "It's one of those buildings you look at and say, `That's Baltimore.'"

Darlene Burroughs takes her break on the concrete platform on the Mechanic's north side. She's thinks it should stay but wouldn't object to a few alterations. "A little decoration would be nice," she offers. "But it fits right into the area."

The opinions of a small crowd of office workers from the nearby Federal Building go across the map. "It's an eyesore," says Tyler Ice. "It's just run down."

"They need to make it into a theater," Bruce Lowrie intrudes. That suggestion is echoed by several of his colleagues. The theater currently is handicapped by its size and age. While it requires large audiences--larger than Baltimore's local theaters can command--it doesn't have the computerized facilities that traveling Broadway productions require.

Dan Kress wonders aloud who the architect might be. "It's unique for the '70s," he says. "I think it's fascinating. And we need more arts and entertainment down here. It's a dead city after 5."

Dina Stewart, of Inner Harbor Dental Associates, puts down her sandwich and considers the possibilities. "It's an intricate building," she says. "What's so hard about maintaining it in its original form?"

And accountant Ronda Boone hopes that it stays. "We don't have anything that looks like it," she says. "Once it's gone, it's gone."

Ben Ampoto, who works for Legg Mason, admits that he has a little problem with the poured concrete exterior: "It don't know, the outside, it's not too good-looking."

From Charles Street, however, the opinions that a reporter ran into were less favorable. "It's an ugly site," says lifetime Baltimorean Meirl Reed, while waiting for a bus. "We need to get rid of it. We need to find more than an old stone rock. We need a diamond in the middle of this city."

A small group of bicycle couriers standing outside the large flat rear end of the Mechanic, which is dominated by the entrance to a basement garage, also has radically different takes. "It's fucking ugly, just like my face," says Doug F., who declines to offer his last name. Another courier, who goes by the name of Dave (but says he doesn't want to give his last name so his parents won't know he's here), is more circumspect. "The guy was a pretty renowned architect, wasn't he?"

Architect Michael Murphy, a CHAP commissioner who helped recommend the Mechanic be designated a historic landmark, is well aware of the breadth of opinions about the theater. "Some people say that it's ugly, that it looks like the Hoover Dam," he acknowledges. "They're entitled to their opinion."

But he feels that the building is entitled to a second look, perhaps by the same people who've walked by it on Charles Street every day. "It's called Brutalist, but here brutality means that it's brutally honest, there's no fooling around," he says. "And that has something to do with the era it was built in. People were trying to express themselves in a very direct way."

And 40 years after the Mechanic's construction, people are still expressing themselves very directly whenever they look at it. And at the Aug. 14 public hearing, those arguments may reach their peak. Johansen himself, again in Heyer's Architects on Architecture, suggests that such unending controversy is fine with him: "It seems to me that when a building has been perfected, the architect has killed it. And I am more interested in life."

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