The Hutzler Building

The Hutzler Brothers Palace Building on Howard Street hasn’t been open to shoppers for nearly three decades, and many Baltimoreans have never been inside.

But visitors will get a chance to see the historic department store starting this week when The Contemporary museum opens an exhibit there in collaboration with the building operator, AiNET.

“The Ground” is the title of a solo exhibit featuring the work of New York- and Richmond-based artist Michael Jones McKean. It opens Feb. 18 at 210-218 North Howard Street, with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. and runs through May 19.

Founded by Abram Hutzler in 1858 as a small dry goods store at the corner of Howard and Clay streets, Hutzler’s grew into a family-owned chain of ten department stores, all in Maryland. The original location was razed in 1888 and replaced with the five-story Palace building, designed by Baldwin and Pennington in a Romanesque style. It was Hutzler’s flagship and one of several department stores that served downtown shoppers for much of the 20th century, along with Hecht’s, Hochschild Kohn, and Brager Gutman’s.

The Howard Street store included the 1888 Palace building, where The Contemporary exhibit will be, and an Art Moderne tower that was added in the early 1930s. It gave Hutzler’s more than 300,000 square feet of retail space downtown, but it was reduced in size and eventually shut down as part of a company-wide closing overseen by former Marshall Field’s executive Angelo Arena.

After closing stores one by one, the company ceased operations in 1990. The Palace building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, is now a “server farm” run by AiNET and filled with equipment used to transmit data on the internet.

Founded in 1989, The Contemporary is a roving museum that has no permanent collection but mounts temporary exhibits in memorable places, from the former Greyhound Bus garage to the Peale Museum. This is the last exhibit by The Contemporary while directed by Deana Haggag, who is leaving March 31 to head United States Artists in Chicago.

Based on the information The Contemporary provided before the exhibit opens, the Palace building was an intriguing choice for an exhibit of McKean’s work, especially since the west side of downtown is part of an arts district and the Palace building was designed to be a “museum of merchandise.”

Within the shell of the former emporium, “McKean has fabricated a massive, multi-room, two-story structure” that serves as an “architectonic labyrinth” containing “diverse aesthetic languages and multiple modes of representation.”

The artist, curators say, uses the historic building as a starting point and merges the museological, the domestic, the store display, the geological, the theatrical and the digital. A handmade replica of the human brain co-mingles with the brains of a wolf, a whale, a cat and an elephant. A cave diorama shares a wall with 12 heads, possibly from members of some futuristic cult.  Another scene depicts people participating in a water birth.

“As Hutzler’s slips with each passing year into more hazily remembered regional folklore, it also cements its historical status in a complex and problematic continuum of socio-commercial spaces – the marketplace – where substances and objects from eyeliner to boom boxes, handbags to frying pans, chocolates to wristwatches, were crafted to elicit various degrees of human desire,” the curators state.

“In this way, McKean conceives of the building as a filter through which materials and objects, each existing within complex global supply chains, have traveled to be displayed, browsed and purchased before finally dispersing into the community-at-large.

“Today, nearly 30 years after Hutzler’s has closed, the building houses a vast internet server farm, where information streams into homes, phones, and businesses. Noting that the building sits atop roughly 25 percent of the earth’s data flow – tweets and texts, selfies, emails, merchandise orders, Skype calls and search queries – The Ground projects a world slipping into phantom being, matter flattening into proto-screen realities – stoic, backlit voids.”

The exhibit is free and open to the public. After the opening reception, it will be on view Thursdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.McKean will talk about his work on February 27 from 6 to 8 p.m. A performance entitled Sonic Meditations will take place on March 25 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. A curatorial tour will be given April 1 from noon to 2 p.m.

For the Hutzler’s store on Howard Street, the beginning of the end came when the company decided to open an Inner Harbor branch on Lombard Street, inside what is now the Bank of America Center, and Arena shifted the Howard Street store into David Murdock’s Atrium building next door, on the site of the former Hochschild Kohn store.

In a symbolic gesture, Hutzler’s took some of the Art Deco grillwork off the front of its 1930s building and moved it to the Inner Harbor store, and it has never returned.  Passersby can see holes in the stone façade where the grillwork was removed.

Throughout its history, The Contemporary has used exhibits to shine a spotlight on neglected buildings that need a new life, starting with founder George Ciscle’s memorable Russian photography exhibit inside the former Greyhound bus garage at Centre Street and Park Avenue. In this case, the Hutzler’s building already has a use, although not one that draws many people downtown. For the next three months, that is likely to change.

Former Mechanic Theatre parcel still in limbo

It looks as if the former Morris A. Mechanic Theatre parcel at Baltimore and Charles Streets is going to stay undeveloped a while longer.

The empty lot of the former Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

Demolition of the theater began in 2014, and redevelopment has been held up by a lawsuit between the property owner, a group headed by David S. Brown Enterprises, and the operator of an underground garage on the block, the DownUnder garage.

Brown plans a mixed-use, high-rise development containing 450 apartments and 150,000 square feet of retail space. The garage owner sued the developer, saying the demolition eliminated the Charles Street entrance to its garage. It lost its case in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City and appealed to Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals. Last week the Court of Special Appeals sided with the garage owner and sent the case back to the Circuit Court.

The decision means Brown can’t move ahead with his project until the Circuit Court considers the case again or the development team reaches a settlement with the garage owner. The area has been fenced off, but neighbors have complained that it’s an eyesore at one of Baltimore’s key intersections.

Developers seek Planning Commission approval for Fox Building conversion 

Developers who want to convert the Fox Industries Building in Hampden to a mixed-use development containing apartments and commercial space will appear before Baltimore’s Planning Commission this week to seek approval of a City Council bill that would rezone the property so the project can move ahead.

The property at 3100-3200 Falls Cliff Road, the first major manufacturing center of the Noxzema skin care conglomerate, has historically been zoned for industrial use.

The developers, including  Michael Fox and Edye Fox Abrams and the Time Group,  seek to have the property designated an Industrial Planned Unit Development, which would allow a mix of uses.

According to Dominic Wiker of the Time Group, plans call for the existing building to be converted to house about 90 apartments on the upper levels and a “maker space” for small businesses near ground level, at the cost of $22 million to $23 million. Alexander Design Studio is the architect.  The Planning Commission meets on Thursday.

Downtown office tower sells for $15 million

Onlookers gather at the St. Paul Street auction.

The 19-story office tower at 7 Saint Paul Street was sold at a foreclosure auction last week for $15 million to its lender. About two dozen people gathered at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse steps to watch the sale, by Alex Cooper Auctioneers, but the only bid came from the note holder.

Architects Suzanne Frasier and David Mayhew to join AIA College of Fellows

The Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects announced that members Suzanne Frasier and David Mayhew will be inducted this year into the AIA College of Fellows, one of the profession’s highest honors.  Frasier teaches at Morgan State University, and Mayhew is University Architect at Towson University.

Love Me Two Times opens in the former Gundy’s Gift Shop space

Love Me Two Times, an upscale consignment boutique featuring clothing, shoes, purses and accessories, has opened in the former Gundy’s Gift Shop space at 739 Deepdene Road in Roland Park. Owner Andrea Kaplan moved her shop from 600 Wyndhurst Avenue, saying she was looking for a location with more visibility and ample parking.

CineBistro at the Rotunda to open February 24

CineBistro, the dinner-and-a-movie theater with reserved seating, cocktails and more, has set February 24 as the opening date for its location at The Rotunda, 727 West 40th Street.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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