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