Baltimore’s historic Senator Theatre re-opened last night after 18 months of renovation. Built in 1939, the Art Deco movie house is beloved by Baltimoreans, spawning a Friends of the Theatre group, social media pages filled with gushing posts and a gaggle of celebrities for its grand re-opening. The $3.5 million renovation included an expansion from one screen to four as well as refurbishing murals, paneling, the floor and walls, and countless small architectural details. Modern multiplexes are not built like the Senator, which, with a circular stucco and glass block lobby, a semi-circular lit marquee, a black marble entrance façade and recreated Art Deco lighting fixtures, is 1930s stylish.
The Senator is a beacon in Baltimore, an eye-catching architectural gem that brightens the Belvedere Square area. Yet, the historic renovation project has significance beyond city borders.
In 1989, the Senator was placed on the National Register of Historic Places , which deems it significant in American history, architecture and/or culture. Listing the structure makes it eligible for tax credit programs and encourages owners to maintain the architectural integrity of the era. At the state level, the Maryland Historical Trust last year approved a $300,000 Sustainable Communities Tax Credit for the Senator Theatre, although staff await submission and review of final certification documents.
Structures that look like the Senator Theatre can stop people in their tracks, creating a buzz in a downtown block and beyond. Throughout the nation, well-preserved historically significant buildings transform communities, catalyzing redevelopment nearby. Redevelopment brings economic activity, such as commercial revitalization, spiking residential values and an uptick in neighborhood cachet.
The Senator Theatre is a community hub supporting nonprofit art organizations, local businesses and school programs. The rehab of the theatre perpetuates those efforts.
Some question whether historic preservation challenges the opportunities for property owners to use buildings to fulfill modern needs. In this case, the theatre owners restored a significant amount of the building’s original features, uncovering historic fabric, recreating fabric-lined walls and repairing the damaged terrazzo floor. At the same time, the owners added three new screens and have plans to build a wine bar. The theatre will continue to fulfill the use that architect John J. Zink designed back in 1939, with an expansion allowing more people to enjoy the cinema each night.
Last night’s premier featured that iconic Baltimore movie, Hairspray, and drew director John Waters and others who produced the flick, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and our own Richard E. Hall, Secretary of the Maryland Department of Planning. Attendees told The Baltimore Sun they were thrilled to see a movie in a setting like the Senator Theatre, reminding them of the “days when it was a toss-up between what was more glamorous: the movies or the buildings in which they were shown.”
So buy a movie ticket or just stroll by the Senator Theatre. It’s worth a look and our gratitude that it still exists.
- Now playing, the Senator, Movies return to the iconic theater this week (baltimoresun.com)
- Opening night at renovated Senator Theatre (darkroom.baltimoresun.com)