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

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

My Comments for Today's CHAP Meeting on The Senator Theatre

I am unable to attend today's meeting of Baltimore City's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), which will consider the 4th significantly changed plan for The Senator Theatre submitted by the new operators in about a year. Instead, as one of the founding members of Friends of The Senator, I submitted my comments by email as follows:

Comment to be placed in the public record

Baltimore City CHAP:

The Senator Theatre is an important, largely intact and rare example of art deco/art moderne theater design by Baltimore-born theater architect John Zink. It is a precious component of Baltimore City’s built environment, which once lost, could never be replaced. It has been recognized nationally as an important monument on the National Register of Historic Places, and as such, it belongs not only to all citizens of Baltimore, but all citizens of the United States, the world, and future generations.

Thoughtful and well-planned preservation of historic buildings of the caliber of The Senator is essential for any metropolitan area that aspires to be both livable and a worthy destination for tourists.

It’s too early to make any informed decision on the latest plan submitted by City’s appointed lessees of The Senator, which is the 4th significantly different plan they’ve submitted in about a year. This new plan has not been seen by the public, and the plan that was submitted to CHAP, as of a few days ago, is nonsensical and incomplete, missing elevations and exit doors. It turns the historic theatre into a poorly planned multiplex and winebar, and still includes a proposal to mutilate the facade’s sight lines.

This has been the pattern all along: the new operators have submitted poorly thought out, incomplete plans which have slid by every approval stage of the process at the City level. Later, when they find out the plans won’t work, those plans change.

The BDC’s choice of a new operator, without any significant or legitimate input by either the public or historic theatre preservation professionals, has been a disaster so far.

The promised increase in traffic to the theatre has not materialized, nor do the numbers thus far support the suggestion that traffic will increase as promised once the project is complete. There comes a point where even exponential growth will not be enough, and this project is never going to attract the approximately 1,000 visitors per day attendance level that was projected in the original proposal to the City.

Worse yet, the theatre is not being adequately maintained. Marquee lights that burn out are left off for months. When parts of the aged neon go out, they are not reconnected. Graffiti is ignored and left to metastasize on the building’s exterior. The inner lobby is now painted an inappropriate color, found nowhere in the original design. A large plastic chute that was used in roof work to funnel debris to a dumpster is left hanging off the building, flapping in the breeze for months after the work was completed and the dumpster hauled away. The place looks like a dump.

The new operators have also shown beyond a doubt that they do not possess the aesthetic, historic, or design sensitivities to do an appropriate restoration. They initially proposed tearing out the original Ladies’ Lounge, a signature feature of Zink’s design for the building. This mutilation would never have been proposed by anyone with a real appreciation of the building’s design.

When that proposed change didn’t fly, for reasons that were obvious to everyone but the new operators and the BDC, they submitted a series of changed proposals. The one they submitted to the Maryland Historical Trust, in an attempt to get historic tax credits, was rejected by MHT, apparently due to its proposed mutilation of the building’s sight lines on the facade and/or its proposed mutilation of the original Men’s Lounge.

Perhaps unbeknownst to most of its members, Baltimore City’s CHAP commission has already done immeasurable harm to the future preservation prospects of The Senator Theatre, when it succumbed to ill-advised direction, apparently from Commissioner Robert C. Embry, in 2009, and placed ill-timed and probably unconstitutional interior landmark restrictions on The Senator Theatre, just in time to drive down the theatre’s value at auction, scaring off viable interested parties. This enabled Baltimore City to accomplish a land grab of The Senator from its former owner, Tom Kiefaber – a man who had made planning for and gathering the resources for the eventual judicious and top-notch restoration and preservation of the theatre his consuming passion and the number one priority in his life for over 20 years.

CHAP thus succeeded in handing The Senator Theatre over to the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), a body that is notoriously anti-preservation.

That Mr. Kiefaber was brutally harmed over a decade, and not helped in his determination to preserve The Senator, by the BDC and the Abell Foundation, is a permanent stain on the records of those organizations, to their everlasting shame.

The CHAP Commission is also tainted in this matter. It’s rife with conflicts of interest, since Mr. Embry, who has long worked to undermine Mr. Kiefaber, and Mr. Cusack, the new operator chosen by the BDC, are both on the board.

This Commission has been rendered incapable of making any decision regarding The Senator that will not be tainted by its politicized record.

I’m through with pretending that The Senator Theatre was acquired from its former owner by a legitimate process, put through a legitimate RFP process by the BDC, and is now being put through a legitimate design review process. I’m not going to give lip service to those falsehoods any longer.

None of this is legitimate. It’s all been one big shameful corrupt fiasco from the beginning. As one of the citizen owners of The Senator Theatre, I reject this body’s authority to make any decision that will allow any modification of The Senator Theatre by the current operators, who have clearly shown that they don’t deserve the honor.

The only legitimate decision that CHAP could make, in my opinion, is to put a moratorium on ANY changes to The Senator until such time as Baltimore City’s lease to the current operators is revoked, and a legitimate historic theatre planning process is done by real, nationally recognized professionals in the field, with the full input of the former owner and the community. Anything less is a travesty and a shame.


Laura Perkins
Friends of The Senator Theatre

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