When the refurbished Hippodrome Theatre opened in 2004 as the centerpiece of Baltimore’s France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, it was supposed to have a smaller performance space next to it.
The Hippodrome Foundation had preserved and stabilized the historic Eutaw Savings Bank as part of the larger arts complex at 12 N. Eutaw St., with the thought that it could become a flexible venue for shows and events that didn’t need the Hippodrome’s 2,300-person seating capacity, but the interior was never fully renovated to accommodate performances.
Nearly two decades after the Hippodrome reopened, that second performance space is finally complete, and it’s much more technologically-advanced than first envisioned.
M&T Bank Exchange is the name of a $20 million, 14,193-square-foot theater and events space that has been created within the shell of the 1887 bank building, representing the long-awaited final phase of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.
On Thursday, the completed project will have its first event, when Baltimore Magazine holds its Best of Baltimore party there. Other events include an after-party for the Bromo Arts Walk on Aug. 24; the Baltimore Met Gala on Aug. 26, and Visit Baltimore’s annual meeting on Oct. 4.
A grand opening ceremony has been scheduled for Oct. 11. In all, 18 events have been booked over the next six months.
Turning the bank into a second events venue was a high priority for Ron Legler, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center since 2014. Andrew Springer is executive director of the M&T Bank Exchange.
“It took the entire community to get this finished,” Legler said during a recent walk-through of the building. “This is going to be an asset for the next 20 years.”
The former Eutaw Savings Bank is one of several historic structures that the state of Maryland acquired along Eutaw Street and consolidated in the 1990s to create what is now known as the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.
The 1914 Hippodrome was restored under the guidance of theater architect Hugh Hardy and modernized as home for traveling Broadway productions and other shows that need a traditional stage and auditorium-style seating, such as Chris Rock’s recent stand-up special on Netflix, “Selective Outrage.” Part of the Broadway Across America network, the Hippodrome has welcomed dozens of productions over the years, including “Hamilton,” “Lion King” and “Wicked.”
In the earlier overhaul, the Hippodrome Foundation took the Eutaw Savings Bank building back to its four walls, removed a drop ceiling that concealed a much-higher original ceiling, and connected it to the Hippodrome’s lobby and parking garage. But the former banking hall remained a relatively static space with limited ability to accommodate performances or events. As a result, it got little use over the years.
With the recent renovation, the foundation sought to complement the Hippodrome by transforming the the historic bank into a space that can meet the needs of a wide range of community groups and organizations, at a price they can afford.
Before starting the renovation, Legler said, the foundation studied the market and identified 45 local groups that expressed a need for a space to accommodate their various events, and that helped guide how they proceeded.
The groups included educational institutions such as the University of Maryland-Baltimore; theater and music groups such as the Baltimore Rock Opera Society; companies and trade groups in need of networking space, and families or individuals marking a special occasion.
In response, the foundation created a venue that can suit a small theater production, a concert by Yo Yo Ma, a stand-up comedy show, distance learning, a gala, a graduation or “match day” ceremony, a wedding reception or a birthday party.
They also wanted it to provide additional space for rehearsals and other activities associated with the traveling productions that come to the Hippodrome, starting with the new production of “The Wiz” that opens the Hippodrome’s 2023-2024 season next month.
“The idea was to keep it as flexible as possible so that whoever comes to use the space uses it the way they’d like to use it,” Legler said.
The architect is Gary Martinez, partner and studio director at OTJ Architects in Washington, D. C. and a noted theater designer.
Legler said the foundation asked Martinez to design a space that preserves and accentuates the best of the bank building’s historic features, such as the Tiffany windows on the east and west walls, but updates it so it works well for the different groups that will rent space there. He calls it “historic renovation,” rather than “historic restoration.”
One of the architect’s big changes was the introduction of a mezzanine level that overlooks the main floor and provides more seating capacity and circulation space. The designers also added storm windows on the interior to block out traffic noise; a terrazzo floor on the main level, and carpeting on the mezzanine level and sound baffles to improve acoustics.
The space has three different configurations: a banquet configuration for up to 550 people; a theater configuration seating up to 582 and a stand-up configuration with room for 1,351. There are three permanent bars and space for additional portable bars. Patrons use the same restrooms as Hippodrome patrons do.
It’s not just the different seating arrangements that make the space flexible. As part of the renovation, the foundation and its designers introduced technology for the most sophisticated shows, including state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, motorized curtains that can darken the space at the touch of a button, the largest video screen within 100 miles.
One feature that sets the Exchange apart from other venues, Legler said, is the degree to which equipment is already in the building and comes with the rental of the space. Because the Exchange has so much equipment already in place, he said, renters won’t have to bring in as much of their own, and that saves time and money.
“Basically, the idea behind this is that it’s all in, so you have sound, lighting, microphones, monitors, video wall,” he said. “When you walk in now, you’re going to basically pick your tablecloths and your centerpieces” and the rest is already there.
The same staff that serves the Hippodrome will serve the Exchange as well, from security personnel to ushers. Groups can work with one of the Hippodrome’s recommended caterers or bring in their own, as long as they meet the Hippodrome Foundation’s criteria.
The second venue can have an event underway even when a show is going on in the main theater, or it can stand alone. There are five different ways to get in and out, depending on the program. The foundation even redesigned the previously-spartan lobby entrance off Fayette Street, to make it more compatible with the historic spaces elsewhere in the performing arts center. It’s now called Weinman Hall.
The new venue is named after M&T Bank because the bank donated $1 million as part of the 2004 renovation and received naming rights in perpetuity. It gave another $300,000 for the latest upgrade. “They’re a wonderful partner,” Legler said. “They’ve had a long, rich history with the arts in Baltimore.”
Other funds came from the State of Maryland; the Abell Foundation; the France-Merrick Foundation; the John Gore Organization and other corporate and individual supporters.
Boost for the west side
The Exchange is expected to provide a boost for the west side of downtown because it will draw more people to the area.
At present, Legler said, performances at the Hippodrome bring 250,000 to 300,000 people a year to the area, and events at the Exchange are expected to attract another 125,000 to 150,000 people a year. In addition, he said, the opening of the venue is expected to create 50 to 75 jobs on a regular basis, and up to 200 when one counts caterers, waiters and bartenders. SpringHill Suites by Marriott, at 100 N. Eutaw St., is the official hotel of the Hippodrome.
Legler said the word “exchange” sums up his hopes for the venue, because it’s a nod to both the building’s past and to its future.
“We wanted it to have a bank feel, because this is an old bank,” he said of the name. “But to me, more importantly, when you come into this room, you want to exchange ideas, stories, art, music, vows — you’ll exchange your vows.” As much as anything, he said. “we want to be a cultural exchange for our community.”
More information about Baltimore’s newest events venue is available at mtbankexchange.com