[Christopher T. Assaf, The Baltimore Sun]
Building materials charitably called “loose debris” started making their way out of the abandoned Centre Theater on North Avenue this week. A construction fence rose around the landmark 1939 Art Moderne building where the film “Oklahoma!” had its Baltimore premiere.
By December, 10 E. North Ave. will be thoroughly cleaned and ready for another phase of its renewal. Look ahead for classrooms, a center for neighborhoods, the Baltimore Jewelry Center and the Joe Squared restaurant.
“For years people have been talking about the Station North Arts and Entertainment District,” said John Diehl, Southway Builders vice president, whose firm is handling this initial $6 million “core and shell” contract. “I think the momentum is there now.”
There will be plenty more construction tasks to be accomplished here. Estimates run to about a total of $18 million to finish the job on this vast structure — it stretches a full city block from North Avenue to 20th Street. When workers entered the building, they encountered a dispiriting ruin.
The building will be shared by the Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art for their film and video programs. And there will be other uses for a building that has not been open to the public for more than 50 years.
As workers were beginning the old structure’s transformation, Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels said, “The Centre Theater is an important part of Baltimore’s long and proud entertainment history. We are thrilled to help bring it back to life, and look forward to collaborating with MICA and other partners in the community to return it to its former glory at the heart of Station North.”
Hopkins officials said this week that their newly named professor of the arts, Thomas Dolby, will have his office in the Centre.
Hopkins officials said the Centre Theater, as well as the 1915 Parkway Theatre at 7 W. North Ave., sit within the university’s Homewood Community Partners Initiative. The goal of the initiative, announced in 2011, is to work with civic and business leaders to enhance conditions in 10 midtown neighborhoods and a business district near the Homewood campus. Hopkins has pledged $10 million for the initiative.
Charles Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore Inc., a development firm dedicated to rebuilding the old city, led an informal tour of the Centre this week.
Holding a flashlight (there was no power in the partially roofless and soggy structure), he said that in the part of the building that housed radio station WFBR-AM, someone discovered a photo of the station’s well-known 1970s disc jockey, Johnny Walker.
The site once housed a Studebaker and Chevrolet dealership, where 1920s Baltimoreans garaged their vehicles. Theater owner Morris A. Mechanic bought the property and retained a Philadelphia architect to create a modern-looking, travertine-clad structure initially called the Radio City Center.
The design was a hit, capturing the city’s 1939 annual architectural blue ribbon. By the time it opened, it was simply called the Centre and it could hold 1,000 patrons. The radio station was on the 20th Street side of the building.
The Centre was not a success. By the 1950s, as the neighborhood was starting to fade, the lobby also functioned as an art gallery, where artists such as Jacob Glushakow and Herman Maril displayed their canvases. I recall seeing a promotional display for the film “Around the World in 80 Days” on the broad North Avenue sidewalk.
When the theater closed in 1959, the old Equitable Trust Co. purchased it, filled in the sloping theater floor and added a floor of offices. It was used for the bank’s operations — essentially check processing. The place also had some years as a church, then fell into a bankruptcy proceeding.
Duff and his Jubilee Baltimore stood outside the place during a public auction in July 2011. This huge structure, occupying the better part of a city block, sold for just $93,000, a financial indicator of how far Station North had sunk.