[Lloyd Fox, The Baltimore Sun]
It’s been nearly 21 years since I cashed a check at the old Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Co.’s Redwood Street banking temple. But I climbed the dark-red stone steps this week and re-entered its memorable interior. I was completely unprepared for its amazing rebirth as the new home of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.
Even as the welders were working on an amazing and very handsome circular stairway and a crew from Southway Builders scurried to complete the renovation of this landmark banking hall, I could see Baltimore’s newest theatrical jewel emerge. Stand by for a fascinating experience when Chesapeake Shakespeare opens this September with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
I was also not prepared for the extent of the repurposing of the venerable former bank, one of a handful of downtown structures to survive the 1904 Baltimore Fire. It’s also reassuring to learn that Chesapeake Shakespeare has already raised 78 percent of the $6.7 million renovation bill and purchase price of the real estate.
I met with Southway Builders’ vice president, John Diehl, who explained how an Elizabethan-style theater-in-the-round was being fitted into the 19th-century building.
“The building lent itself to the theater, but the trick was to fit the theater into the existing building and still provide great sightlines,” he said.
He noted how architects Cho Benn Holback (who also created Fayette Street’s exquisite Everyman Theatre) added distinctive steel stairs and a new lobby off Calvert Street, put dressing rooms in the basement and found room for an elevator.
“As soon as I walked in with our artistic director a little over two years, we both said, ‘This is it,’” said Lesley Malin, Chesapeake Shakespeare’s managing director. “This is like the Globe [the 17th-century London theater associated with Shakespeare]. We looked at the mezzanine, the columns and the magnificent painted ceiling. We looked up and were flooded by the possibilities.”
The Redwood Mercantile is a major Baltimore architectural landmark. Designed by architects J.B. Noel Wyatt and Joseph Sperry, it is a Romanesque Revival architectural treasure. The building went up between 1884 and 1885 and was fashioned of rich, rust-colored brick walls with dark mortar. There’s a slate roof and massive Roman arches. The stone is local and excellently carved.
Security was no joke here. There are surviving catwalks for guards and a basement inner-locking device, complete with iron grates, that is known as the building’s moat.
The Mercantile Trust and Deposit Co. was founded in 1884 by a Virginia Civil War figure, Col. John Gill. Library founder and philanthropist Enoch Pratt, who was also a banker, was one of Gill’s top stockholders.
“Here you have a building of absolute invulnerability and strength, and thoroughly fireproof, where you can deposit coupon bonds, coin, bank notes, stocks, deeds, wills, mortgages, surplus jewelry, choice bric-a-brac, paintings, rare books,” Gill said at the building’s opening.
The old bank set a quiet and dignified tone at the corner of Calvert and Redwood streets, once the heart of Baltimore’s financial district.
Mercantile officials closed the building in late 1993, and it served for a while, never comfortably, as a nightclub.
“I’ve been waiting for decades for things to happen on Calvert Street,” said the Downtown Partnership’s president, Kirby Fowler. “The stars are finally aligning in the right place. The street had been benignly neglected. I feel this is the year that Calvert Street will turn around.”
As I left the old bank/new theater, I paused on the steps to surrender the hard hat I wore for the tour. I looked along the street and saw a high-rise apartment building on nearby Water Street. Looking west, I saw the transformation of 10 Light Street into apartments as well. I considered how more living units are coming to Calvert and Water, in the former U.S. Fidelity & Guarantee buildings, and how many other post-Baltimore Fire commercial buildings are now apartments.