October 10, 2013

Baltimore's Senator Theatre Restored to Full Art Deco Glory

  • By: Katherine Flynn
The Senator’s exterior post-restoration, ready for opening night. Credit: Senator Theatre
The Senator’s exterior post-restoration, ready for opening night.

The 1939 Senator Theatre holds a beloved spot in the hearts of Baltimoreans. Just ask co-owner Kathleen Cusack Lyon.

“Everyone has some sort of memory of the theater,” she says. “Everyone went to see It’s A Wonderful Life every Christmas there, went on a first date there, met their husband or wife of 50 years there. Everyone has a story.”

That’s why, when Lyon and her father, James “Buzz” Cusack, bought the Art Deco Senator from the city of Baltimore in 2012, they knew they had to fix the movie theater’s leaky roof and bring it back to its former pre-war glory.

This led to a 17-month, $3.5 million restoration, with a grand re-opening featuring a screening of the 1988 John Waters movie Hairspray taking place on Oct. 10. (Waters is a native of Baltimore, and the film, the basis for the Broadway musical, had its original premiere at the Senator 25 years ago.)

The interior of the main auditorium after restoration. Credit: Senator Theatre
The interior of the main auditorium after restoration.

After the theater’s roof was sealed, the interior could be brought back to life. The Cusacks comissioned ar architectural study that included determining the original paint colors used on the walls and decorative trim. The main auditorium was restored completely with as much attention to historical detail as possible, with special emphasis on some original gilding on the walls and ceiling.

A replica of the rotunda’s original chandelier was built by hand from photographs by a local metalworker, and a local craftsman refinished decorative woodwork in the lobby and main auditorium. Lyon calls the craftsmanship “unbelievable.”

“[Movie] theaters these days, you go to a mall and there’s zero aesthetic value to it,” she says. “[The Senator] is very unusual in that way.”

In order to run a viable business, the Cusacks added several features to the existing structure, including: three smaller theaters with seating capacities ranging from 65 to 170; a Mediterranean restaurant and wine bar; and a brand-new, Art Deco-themed concession stand.

They will start showing newly released feature films on Oct. 11 -- when Baltimoreans will once again have the chance to make memories in their much-loved theater.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


Now accepting nominations for the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places! Letters of Intent are due September 29, 2023.

Learn More