Film Star: A Classic Baltimore Movie Palace Shines Again
Architect Steve Ziger admits he gets a lot of questions about one of his firm’s latest projects, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway in Baltimore. “Is it finished yet?” people ask him when they see the interior of the newly preserved 1915 theater for the first time. “Is that plaster peeling?” “If you had more money, would you paint it?”
Ziger, the 62-year-old, bespectacled co-founder of Ziger/Snead Architects, brushes the questions aside and explains that the $19 million preservation of the Parkway is complete. It’s not, he points out, your typical movie palace redo, returned to its original state of grandeur. Rather, the Parkway is seemingly suspended in a permanent state of deterioration.
The paint throughout the 407-seat, egg-shaped auditorium is mismatched or missing entirely. There are greens and rust reds from the 1920s, shades of brown from the ’50s. A sizable ornament on the plaster proscenium to the left of the newly installed 30-foot-wide screen is missing. Only two of the 10 oil paintings displayed in large oval frames below the domed ceiling remain; the others were stolen by thieves over the years. The plaster on the walls looks new in some places and appears on the verge of crumbling in others. (In reality, it’s sealed and isn’t going anywhere.)
The building looks remarkably similar to when Ziger saw it for the first time in 2004. Back then, the lobby had been partitioned off from the theater and was occupied by a grocery store. The theater itself, which showed its last film in 1978, served as the market’s storeroom. When Ziger walked through the door from the grocery and looked up, he couldn’t believe what he saw: Despite the peeling paint and copious clutter, the space looked like it had been enclosed in a time capsule.
The city took possession of the Italian Renaissance Revival–style building eight years later and sought ideas for redevelopment. Ziger contacted his friend Jed Dietz, who, as director of the Maryland Film Festival, had been producing the state’s largest fete of filmmaking every spring since 1999. The nonprofit festival had previously rented six to seven screens at theaters around town, but had been looking to add another.
When Dietz saw the Parkway, it was love at first sight. “It was so gorgeous. I just couldn’t believe what I was looking at,” he recalls. “Given the era in which it was built and that it had been abandoned since 1978, I thought, ‘How could this still be looking like this?’”Ziger and Dietz talked about the history the theater had seen over the years. They loved the way the different layers of paint and plaster revealed various eras from its past, and how the “beautiful ruin” aesthetic reflected the burgeoning artsy side of the neighborhood. They came up with a crazy idea: Why not bring the building up to code, but preserve it pretty much as-is? “Fundamentally,” says Ziger, “the architectural approach comes from one big idea: Films tell stories. We wanted to make sure that this building told its stories.”
When the Parkway opened in 1915, it was one of the grandest theaters in town. Designed by local architect Oliver Wight and operated by Henry W. Webb’s Northern Amusement Company, it was patterned after London’s West End Theatre and the Strand Theatre in New York. Newspapers at the time talked about how elegant it was with its marble lobby, Louis XIV–style interiors, and mezzanine-level tea room that boasted “dainty tea tables, writing desks, and maids in attendance.” The theater screened silent films—the first was Zaza, starring Pauline Frederick, accompanied by a top-of-the-line Moller organ.
In 1926, national theater operator Loew’s (later spelled without the apostrophe) purchased the Parkway and conducted a series of improvements, including an expansion of the restrooms. (Originally, the theater had just two toilets to accommodate as many as 1,100 patrons.) In the 1950s the theater changed hands several times, eventually becoming the Five West, named for its address on North Avenue. That incarnation successfully aired a steady diet of art and foreign films up until its closing in the late ’70s. It was where a young Baltimore film director named John Waters (Hairspray, Serial Mom) learned about the sophistication of movies produced abroad. “The Five West was the first place you ever had espresso coffee and saw movies with breasts and subtitles,” says Waters, who sits on the film festival’s board of directors. “That’s where I saw every master, from Fellini to Bergman. Everybody played there.”
But by then, the neighborhood along North Avenue, with its four lanes of traffic in both directions and sidewalks lined with a hodgepodge of row houses, storefronts, and small warehouses, was in a severe state of decline. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the area experienced the stirrings of a revival, as nonprofits such as the Central Baltimore Partnership and then the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) began transforming the buildings into artists’ studios and incubator spaces.
These days, North Avenue is a main artery of the city’s Station North Cultural Arts and Entertainment District, which counts galleries, performance spaces, and hip coffee shops among the fast-food joints and boarded-up buildings awaiting rebirths of their own. Ziger, a Washington, D.C., native who has lived in Baltimore since 1977, knew the Parkway was a key ingredient to the district’s ongoing revival. Its location at the corner of two major boulevards, North Avenue and Charles Street, also places it inside the North Central Historic District, near the geographical center of the city. “It’s such a visible corner,” says Ziger. “Historically and geographically, it’s a bridge from north to south and east to west. This was such a critical property.”
In 2015, Jubilee Baltimore Developers finished rehabbing the circa-1913 Centre Theatre, diagonally across the street from the Parkway. MICA, in partnership with Johns Hopkins University, took two floors to use as a home base for the schools’ joint film studies program. It seemed natural to involve the Parkway in the educational mission, too.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, an international philanthropic organization that funds education and arts and culture initiatives, provided a $5 million grant to the Maryland Film Festival to help offset the Parkway’s construction costs. The festival would own and operate the facility and show a mix of small-budget, non-studio films and international features year-round, open to the public. Students, meanwhile, would be able to screen films and hold discussions in the main auditorium, as well as in two 85-seat jewel-box theaters that were to be added to the original structure. In the end, the old theater would not only get new life, but also a new name.
In the spring of 2016, when Ziger/Snead introduced the idea of preserving the building in its existing state, rather than restoring it to one particular period, the plan was met with more than a little surprise. The “as-is” approach is accepted but not especially common within the preservation field. George Arendt, who served as the senior project manager for the general contractor, Southway Builders, remembers his first time touring the property and hearing of the unorthodox design. “I said, ‘Wait, they just want to leave it as-is?’ You can’t even grasp the idea.”
Jeff Greene is the founder and chairman of EverGreene Architectural Arts, the company that did the majority of plasterwork on the building. Out of the 400 theater restorations nationwide that EverGreene has worked on, he doesn’t recall a single project quite like it. “It was like surgical demolition,” he says.
Even Ziger himself didn’t initially realize what he had gotten his firm into. Without one specific period to focus on, blanket decisions were impossible. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and I’ve never had a project that was so curatorially intense,” he admits. “We literally had to curate every square foot. We had to make decisions as we went along: Are we scraping more paint off? Are we going to seal this? When we have to patch a section, what do we do at the intersection of patch and existing? It would have been a lot easier if we had decided to just paint everything.”
To help guide their efforts, Ziger came up with four overriding rules. Two years later, he still has them committed to memory: “Rule No. 1,” he says, “if something exists and is in good shape, leave it. Rule No. 2: If it exists but is in structurally deteriorated shape, remove it, but replace it in kind. There was a subrule to that: We don’t paint it—see rule No. 4. No. 3: If something doesn’t exist, but once did, don’t replicate it. And rule No. 4: If it’s new, make it look obviously and emphatically new. We weren’t trying to fake like it existed originally.”
So instead of painting over the dark-brown sections of the theater’s walls, which Ziger personally dislikes, they were left as-is. The plaster molding of the magnificent sunburst dome, which sits 50 feet above the floor, was painstakingly repaired in situ. The new plaster was left untinted so that theatergoers could differentiate it from the old. When it came to choosing the color for the theater’s new seats and carpeting, Ziger/Snead picked International Klein Blue—a color that wasn’t patented until the 1960s and could never have been used originally.
Also obviously new is the theater’s strikingly modern addition. An adjacent building, unrelated to the theater, was razed to make room for the cube-like structure. (Although the demolished building was older, it was not viewed as architecturally or historically significant, and the consensus was that it was worth the tradeoff to save the Parkway.) The addition features a glass-enclosed, first-floor lounge topped by the two small theaters stacked above one another and joined to the Parkway on its second floor. The names of movies currently showing scroll electronically across a screen above the glass and below the rest of the edifice, which is finished in a stark white. It makes for a visible—and unexpected—landmark on the corner of North and Charles.
As construction on the building progressed, several of Ziger’s rules were eventually broken. For instance, the theater’s marquee came down in the 1980s, but Southway Builders created an exact replica based on historic photographs of the original. And two 15-foot-tall plaster lattice sections on either side of the screen that once hid the theater’s organ pipes were too far gone to be saved, but Ziger loved their look. So his team photographed them and printed the images on canvases. Even from close up, the faux lattices look like the real deal, right down to the missing slats.
Eventually, Arendt wholeheartedly bought in to what the architects were trying to accomplish. Even with a set of governing rules to go by, deciphering what to preserve versus what to rebuild and integrating modern systems were far harder than following a standard preservation process. “If you know you’re going to come in and make a building look new, you know what the end result is going to be,” he says. “In this case, it constantly morphed. I can’t name one thing on that job that didn’t change.”
At one point, Arendt’s crews discovered a section of the original tea room’s vaulted arch ceiling hidden beneath plasterwork in the restrooms—likely installed by Loew’s when it enlarged the bathrooms in the 1920s. Ziger wanted to showcase the 1915 ceiling, so plans for the restroom had to be changed on the fly, preserving the ceiling along with the checkered floor from the ’50s. Post Typography, which designed all of the Parkway’s new signage, added kitschy hot-pink wallpaper in the ladies’ room (blue in the men’s) peppered with images of popcorn that had been popped at the theater’s snack bar.
Like the contractors, Collin Ingraham, an administrator for financial incentives at the Maryland Historical Trust, says he’s unaware of any other building in Maryland rehabbed in such a fashion. “So often in the commercial tax credit realm we’re dealing with adaptive reuse projects, but this project is so different,” says Ingraham, whose organization provided $2 million in state historic tax credits for the Parkway, as well as a Project Excellence Award for commercial rehabilitation earlier this year. “Quite often we’re looking at a pure rehab project, but sometimes keeping a building as it originally functioned in its day can be far more challenging than, say, converting a factory to rental housing—something we’ve done many times.” In addition to the state historic tax credits, the project also received federal New Markets tax credits and additional funding from Johns Hopkins.
In 2013, before work began, photographer Amy Davis spent two days capturing the Parkway’s well-worn interiors for her 2017 book, Flickering Treasures: Rediscovering Baltimore’s Forgotten Movie Theaters. (An image of the Parkway graces the book’s cover.) Alone in the building, Davis kept hearing noises, that, to her horror, she thought were rats. But then she realized it was the building itself. Plaster was falling from the walls and ceiling. As she worked, the Parkway Theatre was literally crumbling around her. She thinks preserving the building in a perpetual state of decline was an appropriate choice. “Having the Parkway with this display of decay front and center is a powerful reminder of what we almost lost,” she says.
Ultimately, Ziger thinks it was the right decision, too. “I’m proud that we took a bold approach. We knew it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the response since the opening has been really positive,” he says. “It has a sense of place and belonging and history. You can connect with the moviegoing audiences of 100 years ago in a way that I don’t think you could have if we had done a pure restoration. But that would have been so much easier!”