The Last Movie Theatre

Restored Landmark Welcomes Main Streets Conference to Baltimore

SOTW_1-18-12_Hippodrome_HistoricBaltimore’s legendary Hippodrome Theatre will host the Opening Plenary of the 2012 National Main Streets Conference on April 2nd.

One of Baltimore’s most distinctive landmarks, the Hippodrome is also one of its most remarkable preservation stories. Built in 1914, just before World War I, and designed by the leading theatre architect of the time, Thomas Lamb, the Hippodrome was one of the first theatres to show motion pictures. The movie palace seated 3,000 and, in 1920, boasted a weekly average attendance of 30,000. Sound for the movies was provided by a piano, a Moller organ commissioned for the theatre, and an orchestra. In 1931, new management installed a huge new marquee. At that time, the theatre had three price levels: 25 cents before noon, 35 cents between noon and 6 p.m., and 50 cents after 6 p.m.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Hippodrome was the center of social activity on the city's West Side and gained a reputation as one of the top vaudeville houses in the country. It was in the Hippodrome Theatre that Frank Sinatra first appeared with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. During its vaudevillian heyday, the theatre presented such legendary performers as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Benny Goodman, Dinah Shore, and Milton Berle. Through the 1950s, business remained strong as the Hippodrome combined movies with vaudeville, and maintained a house orchestra.

Attendance dropped off in the 1970s and ’80s, however, and the Hippodrome closed in 1990, when it was the last operating movie theatre in downtown Baltimore.

The Curtain Rises Again

In February 2004, after a $71 million rehabilitation made possible in part by historic tax credit financing through the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC), the Hippodrome reopened as the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center. The restoration of the Hippodrome stands as the catalyst to $1 billion in private investment for the revitalization of the West Side, the largest economic development initiative in Baltimore's history. Recognizing the demands and expectations of the new world of theatre and the performing arts, the Hippodrome Foundation undertook the renovation and adaptation of the historic theatre into the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center with world-class development partners, the Maryland Stadium Authority and Clear Channel Entertainment.

Designed by the renowned theatre architecture firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, the Center is a combination of new construction with the renovation of three historic buildings: the Hippodrome Theatre (1914), the former Eutaw Savings Bank (1887), and the former Western National Bank (1890). While the Center's technology and amenities are state-of-the-art, the interior of the auditorium—the original Hippodrome Theatre—appears very much as it did when it originally opened in 1914. The ornate exterior cornice and marquee of the original Hippodrome Theatre was recreated; the great room of the 1887 Western National Bank became the Center's grand north lobby; and the Eutaw Savings Bank, built in 1888, was transformed into a multi-purpose facility for receptions, small performances, and other events.

Restoration professionals spent thousands of hours repairing and recreating ornamental plasterwork, gilded moldings, and other furnishings. The original color palette of beige, rose, and taupe, along with the layers of glazing, was replicated. Six opera boxes, removed in the 1960s to make room for a new Cinemascope movie screen, were recreated, and a water-damaged mural "The Triumph of Performing Arts" by artist Vincent Maragliotti was reconstructed. The Hippodrome mural marked the beginning of Maragliotti`s prolific and successful career.

Key financing for the project came from both federal historic and New Markets tax credits. NTCIC made an investment of approximately $9.6 million in combined tax credit equity. The use of the New Markets tax credit provided an additional 27 percent or $2 million more in equity than would otherwise have been possible.

Making an Impact

Before its restoration, the Hippodrome stood merely as a sad reminder of a formerly vibrant district. Afterwards, a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority revealed that the total impact on the community from restoration of the theatre consisted of $78 million in expenditures, $33 million in personal income, more than a thousand construction jobs, and $2 million in state and local tax receipts. Today, the restored theatre is continuing on its path to prosperity, recently grossing more than $6 million with 62,000 people attending the January 2012 run of the Broadway production of the Lion King.

The successful completion of the Hippodrome Theatre restoration is also an example of the positive effects of public-private partnerships in leveraging investment in a previously neglected neighborhood. Working together, the Hippodrome Foundation, Clear Channel Entertainment, and the Maryland Stadium Authority have become a model for combining preservation and economic development for community revitalization. This project, which preserves the historic character of the building while incorporating modem amenities, is an excellent example for older urban neighborhoods to replicate. As the centerpiece of the West Side renaissance, the Hippodrome Theatre restoration proves that historic preservation can be a catalyst for revitalizing an inner downtown area.

About and Around Baltimore

The Hippodrome Theater is not the only Main Streets Conference venue with a story to tell. The Opening Reception will take place at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles and built to fit into the urban context of downtown Baltimore. The one time railroad center—and longest building on the East Coast—is located 439 feet from home plate and now houses unique event and office facilities. And you won’t want to miss the Main Street Bash at the B&O Railroad Museum. Located in the city’s historic southwest neighborhoods at the original site of the historic Mt. Clare Shops, this wonderful testament to Baltimore history will provide the perfect backdrop for the Bash.