On Jan. 16, 1967, actress Betty Grable took the stage of Baltimore's Morris A. Mechanic Theatre for the opening-night performance of "Hello Dolly!" The house was packed—all 1,854 seats were occupied, according to an article in The Sun—for the theater's debut. The structure was designed by John Johansen, one of the Harvard Five.
Last year, after being closed for a decade, demolition began on Johansen's theater to make way for a 478,000-square-foot retail and residential project. The demolition attracted the attention of New York-based photographer Matthew Carbone, who first shot the Mechanic in 2010 but began shooting the demolition site last year. "Over the next five months I would make six trips to Mechanic," he writes in an email. "For awhile, the destruction was slow going, as if the building was fighting back."
The day prior to the opening in 1967, Washington Post staff writer Wolf Von Eckardt wrote: "At first the building strikes you as the capriciously playful sand castle of a talented boy. The rough, yellowish concrete appears rather brutal and all these bizarre angular forms jutting in and out every which way seem incoherent." He went on to write, "Though it may startle Baltimoreans now, they'll be glad in the end to have this tough, boldly expressive structure as a contrast to its excessively slick neighbors."
According to articles in The Baltimore Sun, the theater closed in 2004 after the operator—which was also involved with the city's Hippodrome Theatre—did not renew its contract, and the theater was bought the following year. According to a 2008 article in the same paper, both Johansen and Shalom Baranes Associates (the Washington, D.C., architecture firm working with developer David S. Brown Enterprises on the new mixed-use project) floated proposals to preserve at least part of the structure. As Amanda Kolson Hurley reported in ARCHITECT, the Baltimore Planning Commission voted against a recommendation to landmark the building. At that time, Johansen (then 95 years old) said to Hurley: "It’s one of my best buildings, and to see it torn down—it's very hard to take." When Johansen died in 2012, his Baltimore theater was still standing, but proposals for the site included demolishing the structure. Demolition kicked off last fall to make way for the One West Baltimore project: four floors of retail topped by two residential towers.
Photographing Mechanic's demise is the latest project to stem from Carbone's interest, as he puts it, in "buildings with complicated relationships." He has also photographed Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital (demolished), Kallmann McKinnell's (now Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects) Boston City Hall, Paul Rudolph's Orange County Government Center, and the Third Church of Christ, Scientist (demolished) designed by Araldo Cossutta, FAIA, when he worked under I.M. Pei. Carbone's Mechanic photography series was the first time he had documented the demolition of one of these structures over time.
"My hope was that my work could raise awareness of the larger issue; that many noted modernist works are at a cross roads," Carbone says. "There are many of us that care for these buildings, we need to find a way to help preserve them."