The Morris A. Mechanic Theatre
Credit: Adam Gerard

The Morris A. Mechanic Theatre

The 1967 Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in downtown Baltimore, designed by Harvard Five architect John M. Johansen, FAIA, may be razed and replaced with two 30-story apartment towers that include retail space, and underground parking. The development firm that owns the theater—which has been shuttered since 2004—recently filed a demolition permit, and the city’s Downtown Partnership, an economic development group, backs its effort to tear down the structure.

Johansen, now 95 and living on Cape Cod, expressed dismay upon learning of the developer’s action. “It’s one of my best buildings, and to see it torn down—it’s very hard to take,” said the architect, whose other buildings include the U.S. Embassy in Dublin.

The 1,600-seat Mechanic brought “The Graduate,” “Hairspray,” and other touring shows to Baltimore through the mid-1970s before being deemed too cramped to host Broadway productions. Local opinion is divided on the appeal of its sculptural, cast-concrete form; but the building’s architectural significance was affirmed in 2007, when the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) voted to place it on its “Special List” and to make it a landmark. 

But the theater was not in fact landmarked. A redevelopment proposal put forward in 2008 would have preserved 80 to 90 percent of the building’s shell. Satisfied with this measure, the city’s Planning Commission took the unusual step of voting against landmarking—counter to CHAP’s recommendation. According to Kathleen Starghill-Sherrill, AIA, president of AIA Baltimore, it was the first time in 40 years that the Planning Commission had opposed a landmark designation.

AIA Baltimore, AIA Maryland, and the preservation group Baltimore Heritage have rallied to save the Mechanic. At the least, they have bought some time: On May 8, CHAP met and decided to re-initiate the landmarking process.

“In 2008, the Planning Commission considered the landmark designation and did not endorse it; that was based upon the plan that was in place at the time, which was a reuse plan,” said Kathleen Kotarba, division chief of historical and architectural preservation in Baltimore’s Department of Planning. “The circumstance has changed. There is now a demolition application and the [preservation] commission would like for the landmarking to be taken up again.”

The landmarking designation must be approved by the planning commission and then by the city council.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, could not be reached for comment, but said in a statement, “There is no overstating the importance of redevelopment at this site,” and described the theater as “an obsolete and failing structure that has been a blight on the community.”

The Mechanic is one of two Johansen theaters that are currently in jeopardy. The other, the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, was damaged in a flood two years ago and is the subject of an ownership dispute between two organizations.

Johansen said that he is trying to be philosophical about the theater’s plight. “My response to this, as to other of my buildings which have been threatened, is: The reward for an architect is in the doing. Having done it already, he can’t expect much more from it.”