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Mechanic decision delayed a month

The ultra-modern Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, once part of Baltimore’s urban renaissance, could be removed from the city’s Special List for historic preservation next month following a public hearing, clearing the way for its demolition by year’s end.

The 45-year-old theater, formerly home to traveling Broadway hits like “Annie” and “South Pacific,” was itself the subject of great drama Tuesday during a two-hour hearing before the city’s Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation near City Hall.

Attorney John Murphy speaks in opposition to the demolition of the Mechanic Theater during the recent CHAP meeting. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

“It looks like a poached egg on toast,” said attorney Stanley Fine, quoting a critique of the theater, which sits at the intersection of Baltimore and Charles streets.

Fine represents One West Baltimore Street Associates, a group of private developers that wants to raze the Mechanic and replace it with a $150 million redevelopment that includes two towers of nearly 30 stories holding 600 residential units, 150,000 square feet of retail space and a new parking garage. He told CHAP commissioners that the Brutalist-style structure has “serious structural problems” that have rendered it obsolete.

The Mechanic closed in 2004 and has remained vacant since.

The 1,600-seat theater was placed on the city’s Special List on Aug. 14, 2007, granting it semi-preservation status in that any attempts to demolish or modify its exterior requires a six-month waiting period while CHAP members work with developers to attempt to find alternatives.

John C. Murphy, a Baltimore attorney who specializes in historic preservation, told CHAP commissioners that the original plan was to build a new development around the existing theater — a design rendering he held up to the panel to make his point.

“Five years ago, they were going to preserve the building,” Murphy said. “There was talk of putting it on the city’s Landmark List, but [the city’s Planning Commission] was told not to because it might affect the [new] building behind it. In my opinion, we were too nice five years ago.

“You call it an ugly building,” Murphy continued. “But there’s a totally different side to that.”

Murphy said a series of respected architects had weighed in on the architectural significance of the Mechanic Theatre over the years. Designed by John M. Johansen who used a style he called “functional expressionism,” the theater has a distinctive concrete façade and has been the subject of great debate since it opened, even being listed as one of the top 10 ugliest buildings in the world.

The theater opened in 1967 and was built and named for by Morris A. Mechanic, a local resident who owned other theaters here.

After nearly two hours of testimony, CHAP Commissioner Larry Gibson made a motion to remove the Mechanic from the Special List and then quickly moved to table that motion until the next CHAP meeting, scheduled for Sept. 11.

Gibson said he did so to allow preservationists and others in favor of keeping the Mechanic time to gather testimony.

“To me, it’s obvious the Mechanic is going to be demolished, it’s simply a matter of when, not a matter of whether,” Gibson said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said through her spokesman that she supports tearing down the Mechanic. City Councilman William H. Cole IV, whose district includes the Mechanic, told CHAP he supported its demolition because it would pave the way for a revitalization of the city’s central business district.

“The building faces the wrong direction,” Cole said of the front of the theater, which opens onto Hopkins Plaza with the back of the building sitting on Charles Street. “We have a building that shows its rear end to us.”

Murphy pointed out to CHAP commissioners that the Mechanic today has several renderings of its redevelopment pasted to its façade that show the redevelopment including preservation of the theater.

Tyler Gearhart, executive director of the nonprofit Preservation Maryland, also testified in support of saving the Mechanic.

“In 2008 there was a clear plan to preserve the building and add a tower. We have been working on the assumption that the plan posted on the building is the one,” he told the panel.

If CHAP votes next month to remove the Mechanic from the Special List, a demolition permit sought by the developers in late April would be activated, said CHAP Chairman Tom Liebel. Barring that, Howard Brown, a member of the development team, said the entire process could be delayed by seven months because CHAP does not have authority to reject a demolition permit request.

“Now it’s seven months,” Brown said after the hearing. “If it goes to nine months, it’ll be a baby.”

In another action, CHAP members voted to add the Parkway Theatre, located at 3 W. North Ave., to the city’s Landmark List.

The theater opened in 1915 as a vaudeville show house and has operated as a live theater and movie theater since.

Its architecture in the Italian Renaissance Revival style was hailed as unique and beautiful by the panel, which unanimously voted to extend landmark status making it the city’s 164th structure to be added to the list.