They called it the Chicken Box, because for many years it housed a fried chicken business.
After this week, it will be history.
The Maryland Film Festival, a nonprofit group transforming the Parkway Theatre into a state of the art film center, entered a new phase of construction today when contractors began demolishing a corner building next to the 100-year-old movie palace.
The corner “Chicken Box” building is being demolished to make way for a new structure that will be connected to the theater at 5 West North Avenue and will contain spaces that can’t fit into the Parkway and will make it more functional. It’s a key step in the $18.2 million project, called the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center.
When it opens in the spring of 2017, the new Parkway will be the center of film in Baltimore, with public screenings, discussions and workshops. It also will serve as the home of the Maryland Film Festival as well as film programs of the Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Plans by Ziger/Snead Architects call for the 29,000-square-foot film center to include a 422-seat main theater in the shell of the Parkway, which was designed by Oliver Wight and closed in the 1970s. The addition will contain two 100-seat theaters on upper levels and a first-floor lounge, café and lobby linked to the Parkway. There also will be office and seminar space for Johns Hopkins and MICA film students. The Maryland Film Festival will be the owner and operator.
The brick clad Chicken Box was previously a pharmacy, a White Tower restaurant and New York Fried Chicken.
Just before 8 a.m. Thursday, as a small crowd of onlookers took cell phone photos, a claw-wielding excavator began biting into the Chicken Box’s North Avenue façade, causing bricks to rain down from the upper level. Within minutes, the excavator had opened a large hole in the building.
Contractors said they expected the demolition to continue through the day and be complete by tomorrow.
“This is a huge step,” said Maryland Film Festival Director Jed Dietz, who came to watch the demolition. “We’ve already started stabilizing the theater. The building is full of scaffolding now for replastering. This demolition will make way for the addition. It’s a big moment.”
Dietz said he is sorry that the demolition will bring the loss of a mural by Gaia, one of the artists who have painted murals on buildings throughout the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
Dietz said his organization’s primary goal is “to rescue the movie theater,” which opened on October 23, 1915 and was always designed to show motion pictures.
“I don’t think there are more than a handful of movie theaters like this left in the world,” he said. “We were lucky that it’s in the condition it’s in.”
Dietz said contractors had to be careful in taking down the corner building because they don’t want to damage the east wall of the theater, which adjoined the Chicken Box.
He said recent pre-demolition activity uncovered evidence that the corner building may have dated from around 1915, making it the same age as the theater. Part of the demolition involves detaching the west and south walls of the Chicken Box from the theater, a task that calls for almost surgery-like precision.
Southway Builders is the general contractor. Seawall Development Corp. is serving as developer consultant. Dietz said the Maryland Film Festival has raised $17 million of the $18.2 million project cost. The largest single contribution, $5 million, comes from a grant to Johns Hopkins from the foundation established by the late Greek shipping magnate, Stavros Niarchos.
Also watching the demolition was Kevin Brown, owner of the Station North Arts Café on Charles Street, just south of the construction site. He recalled that the Chicken Box most recently was used as meeting and office space for the Station North Arts and Entertainment District staff.
‘It’s a short term inconvenience for a long term gain,” Brown said of the construction work. “We’ve been here for 10 years, so we’re glad to see some new customers come.”
The replacement building will be the first new structure to be built on Charles Street or North Avenue in Station North in more than 20 years. Brown said it will be a highly visible sign of the area’s transformation.
“The landscape is changing quickly here,” he said. “There’s lots of interest in the arts district, local and national. You have the trifecta of Hopkins, Maryland Institute and the University of Baltimore, all working to stabilize the area. Lots of things are happening.”