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Mechanic’s Overhaul Stalls

August 21, 2007

By David Sadighian

After hearing hours of testimony on August 14, the Baltimore Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) recommended landmark designation for John Johansen’s 1967 Morris Mechanic Theater. It also granted the structure “special list” status, which routes any applications for exterior work to CHAP for approval. This status can delay new construction permits by up to six months in order to accommodate obtaining official landmark status from the Baltimore City Council.

As RECORD reported earlier this month, the Mechanic’s current owners are seeking to add a 10-story residential tower and retail space onto the vacant building, which will drastically alter both its facade and interior spaces.

The dilapidated theater is one of Baltimore’s only Brutalist buildings. CHAP member Michael V. Murphy, AIA, and other preservationists praise it as an example of the city’s “civic pride and progress at a certain time.” Last week’s hearing generated “very high-quality commentary about the theater,” says CHAP executive director Kathleen Kotarba, adding that the commission received letters of support from celebrated architects—including Richard Rogers, Richard Meier, and James Polshek—art historians, and Michael F. Ross, the American Institute of Architects’ design committee chairman.

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The theater’s owners, the father and son team of Melvin and Benjamin Greenwald, were also present at the hearing with their lawyer. “Can you image retail in a building that looks like a fort?” Melvin later told RECORD, referring to his desire to mask the Mechanic’s blocky concrete volumes. “This ‘special list’ is really a travesty.”

While special list status and CHAP’s recommended landmark designation represented palpable victories for preservationists, the case now must go before the Baltimore Planning Commission for review in late September, and ultimately the City Council, which will grant it official landmark status. Dates for these meetings have yet to be established.

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