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Projects

Repeat Performance

Project: The Hippodrome Theater, Baltimore, MD

Architect: Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (now H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture LLC), New York, NY; Hugh Hardy, FAIA, principal; Stewart Jones, project manager

General Contractor: The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, Baltimore, MD

By Hadiya Strasbergn

"There seems to be no reason why the poor man should not have a fine theater. The owners of [the Hippodrome Theater] have certainly provided one. This theater and this audience do credit to Baltimore." This sentiment was expressed by Baltimore, MD, mayor James Harry Preston on November 24, 1914, the day after the Hippodrome opened its doors. The first performance had included a vaudeville act of "whirling" dancers, a comedy act, singing and the screening of a film, The Iron Master. Four elephants even made appearances. Ninety years later, in February 2004, the theater reopened after an extensive restoration and once again offers films, plays, musicals and other productions – none yet featuring elephants. With two other historic landmark buildings and an array of newly constructed structures, it is also part of a larger entity, the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, which has served as a catalyst for downtown revitalization.

The Hippodrome Theater was designed by Scottish theater architect Thomas W. Lamb and built in 1914 for $225,000. It flourished under its original owners, Marion Pearce and Philip Scheck, but with the sale of the Hippodrome to the Loews chain in 1917 and the Great Depression, attendance declined and the theater went into decline. A resurgence, which began when Isidor Rappaport purchased the Hippodrome in 1931 and lasted until the early 1950s, hosted such famous acts as Abbott and Costello, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Ginger Rogers. However, television slowly stole the shows and audiences, and in 1990, the Hippodrome closed.

With the theater abandoned, it deteriorated rapidly. When New York City-based Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (HHPA) was hired in 1999, about half of the theater was deemed beyond repair. "The theater was a mess – it was unusable," says Hugh Hardy, principal of H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture LLC, an offshoot of HHPA. "Leaks had destroyed 40 percent of the ceiling and a third of a large mural above the stage proscenium. There were numerous building-code violations and the technology was outdated."

Yet another issue was the lack of space. "Built as a vaudeville house and then used as a movie theater, the theater had a very shallow stage," says Hardy. "And because vaudeville performances had no intermissions, the theater had no need for a lobby. There was only the street, the front door and the auditorium." To make a contemporary performing arts center, the theater required a much larger stage. "It needed a bigger stage, a house with sufficient seating and public space to circulate during intermission," says Hardy.

With these requirements in mind, HHPA made use of neighboring buildings, using two of them to extend the lobby space to 21,000 sq.ft. over three levels. "There are excellent views of downtown," says Hardy, "which ties in the bigger picture of this project: the Hippodrome as a vehicle to downtown revival."

"But figuring out the circulation so the theater could be usable was one of the largest challenges of this project," adds Hardy. "We needed to open up what little public space there was and to create connections between the buildings." The local Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission agreed to the removal of some of the original staircases at the back of the auditorium. "The commission was nervous about this plan," notes Hardy, "but we couldn't have connected the spaces otherwise. We explained that this option would make it workable and that it was a small price to pay to have the auditorium itself come back into use, and the commission understood that."

The firm built a 180x50-ft. stage with a seven-story-high ceiling. "The new stage is nearly triple the size of the original one," says Hardy. "We had to demolish buildings at the rear of the site and extend the theater to accommodate the stage." Though the seating capacity was reduced from 3,000 to 2,286, the auditorium now features more comfortable seats.

With the aid of historic images, the remainder of the auditorium was restored to its original appearance. The balcony, which was found to contain insufficient rebar, was reinforced. Twelve opera boxes that had been removed in 1963 and replaced with cinderblock walls – to make room for wide-screen Cinamascope motion pictures – were recreated.

Conrad Schmitt Studios (CSS) of New Berlin, WI, also played a major role in the project, restoring the plaster ornament, gilding, stenciling, glazing and a mural above the proscenium. The mural, a 45x26-ft. depiction of the Three Graces, was in disrepair, with about a third of it, the center section, missing. "It was originally created by Vincent Maragliotti, who also did work in theaters in New York City," says Hardy. CSS relied on historic images to recreate the image.

Some updates were necessary, too. The rudimentary stage lighting and rigging was replaced with modern equipment and projection equipment was introduced. A floor orchestra pit was constructed for the first time. New mechanical systems were installed and the theater is now temperature and humidity controlled. "We found ways to get all the air ducts and supply and return work hidden in the architecture," says Hardy. "We didn't want anyone to be at all aware of the mechanicals."

Lighting is a combination of new and old. Fiber optics were used for some of the inaccessible chandeliers, but the lanterns over the opera boxes are replicas of originals captured in photographs. Fisher Marantz Stone of New York City designed the lighting. "We reproduced the original character of the lighting," says Hardy. "Even where we used fiber optics, the fixtures are historically styled."

Melding new and old was a perpetual challenge of the project. HHPA created a similar atmosphere in all of the spaces through lighting and used complementary color schemes to tie new and old together. Patterns varied, but carpeting was used throughout. "We didn't want to have jarring contrasts between the new and old and we had to treat the building with respect," says Hardy.

HHPA not only restored the Hippodrome, but also worked on the entire block. "The scope of this project was immense," says Hardy. "The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center includes the original theater and five other buildings – the historic 1888 Eutaw Savings Bank that now serves as a party and cabaret space; the 1887 Western National Bank and a newly constructed building that are now part of the lobbies; a loading dock; and a parking garage. We didn't change the garage, but it's the reason the complex is functional."

Among the six buildings, there are brick, terra-cotta, limestone and brownstone façades, all of which were fully restored. Other than restoring the theater's brick façade, exterior work on the original theater involved replacing the precast cornice and reinstalling the original Hippodrome sign with the original lights. "The marquee was also reinstalled," says Hardy. "That was a wonderful touch. There's something about a marquee – with all the light bulbs – that's really festive. It indicates that there's a special event going on."

The $70-million restoration now allows the Hippodrome to host many special events. The Producers rang in the first opening night of the 21st century, welcoming a full house into the newly restored theater. "The thing that pleases me most," says Hardy, "is that restoration of the Hippodrome Theater was conceived to help revitalize the city and it's succeeding." TB

 

 

 
 

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