Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore was a fascinating space that endured dramatic swings of public opinion and financial stability. Its bold, uncompromising design was praised by some and derided by others. It served well known performances like Chorus Line, Hello Dolly, Grease, and The Wiz, but was also a “try out” space for shows intended for Broadway. Mechanic Theatre’s financial stability swung from complete closure to record breaking.
Act 1: A Troubled Start
Baltimore, like other American cities, was reeling from the post-WWII loss of industry and civil unrest. Large numbers of people had moved to the suburbs. In the 1950s, Baltimore city officials wanted to revitalize the downtown area, starting with a 33-acre site west of Charles Street named Charles Center in the new business district. The design of Charles Center included office buildings, hotels, commercial space, and a theater center, which would become the home of Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.
Designed by architect John M. Johansen and completed in 1967, Morris A. Mechanic Theatre was a continuation of the bold, assertive architectural forms defined for Charles Center’s “monumental city” theme. It was an imposing collection of angular and blocky shapes built from wood covered concrete. Much of the facade was windowless and appeared to emerge from the sidewalk. The theater’s namesake was Morris A. Mechanic, a Baltimore businessman who owned multiple theaters in the city. The theater included shops, restaurants, and outdoor seating areas all designed to attract theatergoers to not just see a show, but stay and enjoy the nightlife.
Reception to Morris A. Mechanic Theatre was divided. The building was praised for its innovative form and won top prize in a competition co-sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, Baltimore Chapter and the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Baltimore. At the same time, it was criticized for its appearance and shortcomings as a practical theater. Among its problems were difficulties unloading in the underground garage, poor use of aisle space, obstructed views from orchestra seating and high distant balconies, and difficulty hearing performances. The theater’s subscription rate fell dramatically from 14,000 in its first season to 2,300 by the 1974-75 season. In 1975 the Mechanic closed, but not for good.
Act 2: Help From Hope
Baltimore’s commissioner of housing and community development, Roger Embry, stepped in to try to rescue the theater. Embry persuaded Mayor William Donald Schaefer that there was a market for performances there. The city entered into a 20-year lease for the theater and restaurant space. The new Mechanic opened in 1976, after over a half million dollars of renovations to address the criticisms of the original design, but some problems remained. The he stage and backstage storage area weren’t large enough for large-scale musicals.
Mechanic Theatre still needed help, and got it from Hope Quackenbush. Described by an Afro-American article as “humble, yet determined”, Quackenbush founded the long running Baltimore City Fair in 1970 and was the driving force behind the Mechanic Theatre’s resurgence. At Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, she learned the theater business from a New York booking agent and eventually began booking shows at Mechanic Theatre on her own. From then to her retirement in 1993, Mechanic Theatre flourished, booking well known Broadway shows and becoming a “try out” location for shows destined for Broadway. Theater subscribers grew from 3,000 to an all-time high of 22,000 in 1984.
Act 3: All Good Things…
By 1991, Morris A. Mechanic was showing its age. The theater was having trouble competing with larger venues in other cities, such as Washington’s Kennedy Center, that could hold larger audiences and support more technologically sophisticated theater productions.
Other factors contributed to the decline of Mechanic Theatre’s success. The revitalization of the Inner Harbor, started in the 1960s and culminating with the opening of Harborplace in 1980, siphoned tourist and business attention from Charles Center. Business tenants that left Charles Center weren’t replaced. Shops in the area deteriorated, further decreasing foot traffic. By 1994, crime was a problem more pressing than the state of the Mechanic Theatre. “The downtown area doesn’t need culture right now,” Schaefer, who was by then the governor, said in a Baltimore Sun article at the time. “It needs safety…” Also, the focus of city revitalization efforts shifted west to the Howard Street area. BCPA decided to renovate the Hippodrome Theater on Eutaw Street, which opened in 2004. The Mechanic closed for the final time.
For a little over a decade starting in 2004, Morris A. Mechanic Theatre sat unused. Various proposals were made that ranged from simply using the building as is, gutting the interior and preserving the facade, adding more stories, to completely razing it. In 2014, David S. Brown Enterprises was granted a permit to demolish the theater. The company plans to build a multistory mixed-use building on the site.
Carl Schmidt is owner of Federal Hill Photography, specializing in commercial and fine art photography. Contact him at [email protected].
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