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Everyman adds to West Side vibe

With roots in vaudeville and burlesque, the halls of what soon will become the new Everyman Theatre on the city’s West Side are steeped in local lore and history.

The new Everyman Theatre is the latest project in a string of urban renewals on the West Side, including the Hippodrome and the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower.

The $17.7 million redevelopment at 315 W. Fayette St. is coming together this summer in preparation for the Jan. 18 grand opening with a Baltimore premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “August: Osage County.”

The project is the latest in a string of urban renewals in the area recently designated an Arts and Entertainment District by the Maryland State Arts Council. Nearby, the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center’s Hippodrome Theatre and the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower add to the budding new street vibe. Within a mile, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is planning to renovate the former Mercantile Trust and Deposit Co. bank building at 200 E. Redwood St. beginning early next year.

The Everyman project started last June 7 with a groundbreaking, followed by a total gut of the building. The work is 80 percent complete, said Ian Tresselt, managing director of the theater.

Last week windows were readied for installation and workers focused on electrical wiring for the 250-seat theater. The rough construction shows the outline for the new stage, and nearby a large dressing room is being readied for the actors who will command the boards.

Outside, the construction has sparked curiosity and a visual sense that change is coming to a part of the city that for years has decayed as once-strong retail and entertainment venues moved to the suburbs.

“One year from now, I see Everyman bringing vibrancy and foot traffic to that neighborhood,” Tresselt said, adding that he tours the construction site nearly every day. “I see what is now a dark street on Fayette being lit with a theater that has light spilling out on the street.”

Private donations have paid for most of the ambitious project, Tresselt said, with assistance from state, local and New Market Tax Credits.

The nonprofit theater started in 1990 and performed gypsy-like on various stages around Baltimore for four years before settling down at its present location at 1727 N. Charles St. There, patrons have been treated to performances that recently have included “Our Town” and “Pygmalion” in the small, intimate space of 10,000 square feet.

The new theater, Tresselt said, will be more than 35,000 square feet.

“Over 10 years ago, we started to see the constraints on our current space,” said Gina Hirschhorn, a member of the Everyman Theatre board who has spearheaded fundraising for the project. “Our shows were filled to capacity and our performers had to rehearse off property. New sets could not be built until the current show ended. So we started looking to move.”

That quest included the site of the former Chesapeake Restaurant, located in the same block as the current theater, and certain sites on the city’s East Side. Then in 2006, Bank of America, where Hirschhorn is a senior vice president, offered the Town Theatre building to Everyman for $1.

“That came with the opportunity and the challenge for raising funds,” she said. “This was a monumental task.”

Throughout the next five years, Hirschhorn said she lived and breathed fundraising for the new theater, posting multimillion dollar success even in the blistering recession.

“Everyman is a special place,” she said. “It is not as well known as it should be, but it will be.

“The theater is now part of the West Side development, and it’s a keystone to the development. When we first moved to North Charles Street, there was nothing there. We were a stabilizing force, and I’m hoping we’ll do the same here.”

During a hard-hat tour, Hirschhorn pointed out the bones of what soon will be the new theater. A stage that at its highest point will have the audience eye-level with the actors, large arched windows facing Fayette Street, a part of the building’s distinctive Beaux-Arts style and an “E” carved into the front façade — a remnant from the original vaudeville revues staged at the Empire Theatre.

“The intimate space within this big, old giant theater will remain,” she said.

The theater’s former lives — as the Empire when it first opened in 1911, changing to the burlesque Palace Theater in the 1930s and later a parking garage after federal agents shut the Palace down in a raid — all add to its charm, Tresselt said. Most recently, the building held the Town Theatre, a movie house that closed in 1999.

The Everyman grand opening just after the first of the year will include a weekend-long celebration of parties to honor past Everyman directors, board members and actors.

They will 9include tours of the new space to show off its large dressing room, two-tiered lobby and bar and large classroom and office space on the upper floor, including a black box theater that has capacity to be converted into an auxiliary performance space.

“When you’re in the building, it feels good,” Tresselt said. “The bones feel good, the construction feels right. It really feels like home.”