On N. Howard, blight gives way to art, hope

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - Jac­ques Kelly jac­ques.kelly@balt­sun.com

Bal­ti­more the­ater artists t ook a $ 275,000 chance when they bought an old nurses uni­form sales build­ing in a de­serted block of North Howard Street.

The build­ing had long ago been sub­di­vided and ap­peared bleak. It sits on a street that was so de­pressed that it was once se­lected for a scene in “The Wire.” Cus­tomers stopped shop­ping for liv­ing room fur­ni­ture, bed­ding and other items on the block decades ago.

But where some see only de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, oth­ers see op­por­tu­nity.

“There’s been a re­cent sea change in at­ti­tude about this neigh­bor­hood,” said Ric Royer, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the the­ater com­pany Psy­chic Read­ings. “Peo­ple are no longer say­ing, ‘You are crazy.’ They are say­ing, ‘What’s hap­pen­ing now?’ ”

Royer, Carly J. Bales and Evan Moritz are co-founders of LeMondo, the group that wants to es­tab­lish a cul­tural hub on Howard Street. They name al­ludes to the John Waters film “Mondo Trasho” — as well as the New York the­ater com­pany La MaMa and the French word for “world.”

The part­ners are be­ing aided by Win­stead “Ted” Rouse, the son of the late James Rouse, who sits on the group’s board. His com­pany, Healthy Planet, is help­ing fi­nance the ven­ture.

Since go­ing pub­lic two years ago with their in­ten­tion to re­claim aban­doned Howard Street struc­tures as part of the Bromo Arts Dis­trict, the part­ners have bought the com­modi­ous Uni­form City build­ing at 404 N. Howard St. and are work­ing with city of­fi­cials to ac­quire oth­ers.

Their plans for Uni­form City call for a cul­tural hub to be open day and night, with per­for­mance venues. It will also house re­hearsal and scene shop fa­cil­i­ties.

The group would like to see a large cafe. The up­per floors of­fer space that could be for liv­ing and work.

Bales, artis­tic di­rec­tor of EMP Col­lec­tive, said she and her part­ners had no clue when they bought the old Uni­form City build­ing that it had been con­structed in 1916 as an early movie house that seated 700 pa­trons. It was then called the Strand Theatre. “When we first came here, it was sub­di­vided with par­ti­tions — it was two sep­a­rate stores,” she said. “We did some de­mo­li­tion and found there were no col­umns.

“It is clear open space — it was then ob­vi­ous it had been a the­ater.”

Ar­ti­cles in The Bal­ti­more Sun show that it was man­aged by the own­ers of North Avenue’s Park­way, an­other 1916 film house that is now be­ing re­fur­bished.

LeMondo’s part­ners plan to stage their first pro­duc­tion this win­ter. They have ac­quired a liquor li­cense so au­di­ences can have a drink be­tween the acts.

Car­pen­ters were work­ing on the wood- en com­po­nents of a bar when I toured the build­ing this week. About $70,000 has been in­vested in the project.

The co-founders be­lieve they have crossed a thresh­old and will soon be at the heart of a new in­flux of in­ter­est.

Moritz, of the An­nex The­ater, stood on Howard Street and pointed to the on­go­ing con­struc­tion at Park Avenue and Franklin Street, where a new vil­lage of apart­ments is ris­ing.

Then he pointed to the cor­ner of Howard and Mul­berry, where an­other apart­ment devel­op­ment is planned.

“There are 600 units right here,” he said.

The part­ners say they wanted to get on Howard Street early, be­fore it is claimed for rede­vel­op­ment. They like its his­tory and the broad floor space the old build­ings here con­tain. Many saw years of ser­vice as fur­ni­ture and pi­ano show­rooms.

“One day you have next to noth­ing, and the next day, a grant comes in,” Bales said.

I had not been inside a build­ing along this block since 1980, when Otto Schell­hase closed his fondly re­called Ger­manstyle restau­rant — an­other struc­ture LeMondo hopes to ac­quire.

When Schell­hase’s shut down, it was all the more trou­bling be­cause the neigh­bor­hood seemed to be go­ing nowhere.

Now, 36 years later, one can’t help but feel its en­ergy.

BAR­BARA HAD­DOCK TAY­LOR/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Rick Royer, left, Evan Moritz, Carly Bales and Win­stead “Ted” Rouse are un­der­tak­ing the chal­lenge of trans­form­ing a down-at-the-heels neigh­bor­hood into a cul­tural hub for the city that will in­clude a the­ater that will stage its first per­for­mance this win­ter.

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