Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Senator: Architect John J. Zink's best known theatre

I had a realization today that when I or other Senator supporters speak of The Senator being architecturally significant or a work of art, many people do not understand this. This could be through no fault of their own, but only because they don't know the history. Perhaps it's time to educate the public a bit about why The Senator is a significant piece of architectural art, listed on the National Register of Historic Places for a reason.

The Senator was designed by famous theatre architect John J. Zink. If you do a Google search on "John J. Zink architect," you'll find that The Senator is repeatedly referred to as the best known of his theatres. Zink was known for designing in the art moderne or art deco style, which is sublimely embodied in The Senator Theatre.

The historic theatre reference web site Cinema Treasures lists 30 theatres that were designed by Zink, all of them in Maryland, DC, or Virginia. He was a native of Baltimore and his designs were concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic region. Zink was a protege of another famous theatre architect, Thomas W. Lamb. John J. Zink designed more theatres than just the 30 listed on Cinema Treasures. One web site I saw claimed the number was around 200, but most are long since gone.

Of the 30 Zink theatres listed on Cinema Treasures, just 6 are listed as open. These are The Senator Theatre and the Patterson Theatre in Baltimore (but it should be noted that the Patterson has been significantly altered from its original design), the Atlas Performing Arts Center and the Uptown Theatre in Washington, DC, the Commodore Theatre in Portsmouth, Virginia, and the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Maryland. The other 24 Zink theatres listed on Cinema Treasures have all been closed or demolished.

The Senator is repeatedly noted as Zink's best known achievement. It would be a tragedy if a rushed RFP process with a lack of input from historic theatre and preservation professionals caused irreparable harm to this significant and rare architectural treasure.

I would also like to add that The Senator did not become one of the few surviving John J. Zink theatres or the best known or listed on the National Register of Historic Places on its own. Those preservation wins and the theatre's well-deserved national reputation were all the work of Tom Kiefaber, his family, and his loyal staff over the years.

John J. Zink made The Senator a beautiful work of art. Tom Kiefaber and his associates made The Senator famous, nationally recognized, and a place where so many wonderful events have happened over the years that people all over Baltimore and elsewhere have their own delightful memories of The Senator. It would be well to remember that as we anticipate the next phase in The Senator's history.

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