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If Morris Mechanic Theatre Goes, Expect More Than One Dry Eye

3 Written by: | Tuesday, May 08, 2012 12:41pm

A few days ago, Baltimore’s Morris Mechanic Theatre came one step closer to being reduced to rubble, after developer OneWest LLC filed for a permit to demolish the space and replace it with two 30-story mixed use developments.

For many in the city, that’s not a big step to take. Since its construction in 1967, the harsh, brutalist modernism of the building has inspired cracks and smirks from architectural critics, real and wannabe, across the city. Planted in the middle of the inner city, its unvarnished concrete cubism has cheerfully defied what most urban downtowns demand of modern art: feel good atmospherics, and sleek, shiny magnets for commerce.

It’s been compared to a concrete bunker, and, most famously, to a poached egg on toast, by Hecht Company executive J. Jefferson Miller in 1967.

Actors themselves, at least those old enough to remember the building in its heyday, when it was the stopping place for traveling Broadway shows, don’t seem to be sad to see it go. A cramped backstage was among complaints I have heard registered over the years. Bruce Nelson, a Baltimore actor, told me that when he heard of the latest developments, he had to confess to mixed feelings. For awhile, the Morris Mechanic was Baltimore’s only link to the professional theater world.

“My first professional theater that wasn’t local was me seeing The Elephant Man on a tour at the Mechanic. Ten years later, I would play the Elephant Man on a tour. So the idea that the Mechanic’s going away is sad. I also know from different actors who know that space, it is an awful, awful space.”

I personally remember my final vision of the interior of the Mechanic. It wasn’t pretty. A traveling Broadway production of The Graduate, which was going on the road after a justly foreshortened Broadway debut. I remember the atrium (classy)  but my opinion of the theater itself was somewhat colored by the fact that the play was, in no uncertain terms, a stinker. If I’d seen Liv Ullmann, Nigel Hawthorne, or George C. Scott there — and they all graced the stage — I would have remembered it more kindly.

But I had plenty of time to reconsider. The Mechanic closed in 2004. It remained empty for years. Touring Broadway companies easily transitioned to the more Broadway-friendly Hippodrome, in West Baltimore. Developers started to look toward its prime real estate. And then, in 2007, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), stepped in, including the building on its “special list” of historical buildings.

It was, I learned, not just a theater. It was actually a groundbreaking work of art, one of the city’s few jewels of modern architecture. So I couldn’t help going back. And, yes, there was something to it. It had style. In-your-face style, but it seemed to demand a well-thought-out response.

The exterior looked like it was supposed to be the interior – and in a space hidden from the public eye. Its unvarnished concrete exterior, slowly yellowed by the dribbling of the elements, and its jagged edges, caused me to circle it closely. It never was clear, exactly, which end was the front, or where the aesthetically inclined viewer was supposed to stand.

I learned a little bit about the architect himself, John M. Johansen. A groundbreaking visionary of what he called “functional expressionism” made it clear that it wasn’t meant as a feel-good magnet for mixed-use development.

“Some architects in the United States are searching for beauty, but I am not one of them,” he noted, in a interview in the book, Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America, in 1966.

As I look at the building, it forces me back to 1967 itself. This was a city that was rapidly emptying out. White flight had already dramatically emptied the downtown. Theaters and department stores were in the process of closing their doors and heading to the suburbs. A year later, the Baltimore riots were around the corner. Inner Harbor was still an empty park. Downtown Baltimore was a place to work, perhaps, but no longer a place for the theater.

Hunched in its concrete-and-steel bunker, the Morris Mechanic Theatre defied that accepted wisdom.

The decision is yet to come. The permit for demolition has been filed. The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation is certainly under a lot of pressure to clear the path towards building two 30-story buildings. The Morris Mechanic isn’t grandiose. It doesn’t attempt to overwhelm. It’s planted, squat and almost defiant, in the center of town.

Needless to say, the building is about to undergo a barrage of insults in the near future. The developers – David Brown Enterprises, Ltd. – are waiting for permission to unleash the wrecking ball. Owner Melvin Greenfield, in an August 2007 hearing on architectural landmark status, called the building “ugly…an architectural mistake…it was obsolete when they built it.” Most ominous for the preservationists is the strong push by Baltimore’s Downtown Partnership for demolition.

Their strong aesthetic objections to brutalist architecture are probably genuine. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they hold a strong financial interest in convincing the city that the Morris Mechanic is not just architecturally obsolete, but that it’s a worm in the apple.

But before the wrecking ball takes the first chunk out of the Mechanic, it’s worth remembering: in 1967, this building wasn’t just a bold statement architecturally, it was also a defiant move against the current, made in years when developers couldn’t get out of the city fast enough.

Leave a Reply

  • David

    From the photo, there is a certain grace and style to the Mechanic. However, visiting the theater was a whole different experience. It always seemed like I was going in a basement entrance. Part of the theatrical experience should be being transported away to another time and place. Going to the Mechanic was, as the article states, like going to a bomb shelter in the 1950s. Not the most pleasant thoughts. I think the last performance that I saw there was the Nutcracker. It was an ok performance, but the music was taped, not live, and the heat was stuck on full blast. It must have been 100 degrees in there. Not sorry at all to see that place go.

  • Christen Johansen

    I am saddened by two things, one is a fact of history, the other is likely to be . The fact that, given the promising ideal of the Mechanic Theater, conceived not only to be a multi-purpose performance and exposition center but a bulwark against the attitude of fear and flight of many from a depressed inner city in the 60′s, it is sad that it was allowed to be left for so long without a life and that creative minds were not able to overcome what seems now to be an underlying ambivalence about its fate, if not a calculated undermining of attempts to adapt and repurpose this unique building. Having recently seen the proposed design for the residential/commercial complex most likely to replace the Mechanic, it is depressing to think that such a formulaic, uninspired piece of architectural bling will be built in a place of such prominence within the Baltimore city center. When my father heard that the building he designed was shuttered and empty, his first response was to take out pencil and paper and re-imagine how to incorporate the Mechanic’s plaza shops, elevated terraces and theater tiers into new social venues with residential apartments above. The resulting sketches were not unlike the historic layering one finds in the architectural mix of older cities where modern design is built into and upon earlier Deco, Beaux-Art and Renaissance forms. Our architecture, reveals a great deal of our history. The Mechanic Theater isn’t pretty but it embodies a particular and unique period in American architecture and our urban history which needs to be remembered and not so easily displaced by a flashy suit with little substance and the promise of quick financial returns. I think the people of Baltimore are smarter than that and deserve much more.

    • A Concerned Citizen

      Christian Johansen’s comment is spot on. His father was a true visionary and his work should be respected as such. There is no reason Mechanic theater cant be saved and no reason it shouldn’t be! Fight for your history Baltimore, dont reject it.
      \



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