National nonprofit Artspace plans to repurpose NW Baltimore’s former Ambassador Theatre

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The building at 4604 Liberty Heights Ave., in August 2018. Image via Google Street View.

Artspace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that operates more than 50 live-work artist spaces and other projects around the country, has purchased the the historic, long-lost Ambassador Theatre.

Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development spokesperson Tammy Hawley said in an email that the property was recently sold at auction after the city brought it into receivership. “Artspace was the winning bidder at receivership auction and bought the building for $100,001.”

The transaction is still closing. Dermatologist Larry Gaston, who purchased the building for $300,000 in 2006 and held onto it for more than a decade, is still listed as the owner on state property records.

Artspace, which declined to comment for this story because redevelopment plans aren’t yet finished, has met multiple times with residents of the Howard Park and Forest Park communities while eyeing a revival of the historic building.

A presentation from last month, forwarded by Hawley, highlights other projects by Artspace that feature commercial space, performance areas and galleries, as well as combined working studios and artist apartments. It also notes stated community goals, including maintaining affordable housing, drawing new neighborhood investment, strengthening the the Liberty Heights Avenue commercial corridor nearby and more.

The city’s spending board approved the transfer of $370,000 in funds for “predevelopment activities” with the theater on Aug. 18, which was on top of more than $483,000 (out of $550,000 budgeted) the city already spent stabilizing the 83-year-old structure after bringing it into receivership.

Hawley said the city took control of the property to put it “into the hands of a capable developer.”

“It was our belief, along with the community, that it was important to activate the space,” she said. “Our hopes for future development were in the arena of promoting the arts and arts education. That vision is materializing with the Artspace acquisition.”

Christopher Ervin, board chair for the Howard Park Civic Association, said residents have been talking about what to do with the space for years. There was a push by some to tear it down–before it was designated a city-protected landmark in 2016–to make way for a parking lot or future office building, but after further discussions, a survey of association members indicated they “overwhelmingly” wanted to retain the building.

They’ve held four community meetings with Artspace, and have asked for it to be rejuvenated as a community theater with equal focus on youth and adult programming, and staged productions. He pointed out there are two schools blocks away that a theater organization could work with, in Calvin Rodwell Elementary and Forest Park High.

“We’re trying to create an environment that includes the schools, and create an environment that supports the artists.”

CHAP’s staff report first recommending protected designation in 2013 came one year after a fire destroyed part of the interior of the Art Deco-style building. Despite the damage, the exterior still sports the Ambassador’s marquee sign and original architectural elements.

Built in 1936 and designed by noted Baltimore architect John Zink, the theater was a key piece of the historic Gwynn Oak Junction area, and screened movies for three decades before it closed down.

Per CHAP’s staff report, theater historian Robert Kirk Headley wrote in his 1974 book “Exit: A History of Movies in Baltimore” that the Ambassador was considered “the first truly modern movie house in Baltimore.”

At its opening celebration–which was attended by Gov. Harry Nice and Baltimore Mayor Howard Jackson–the theater’s original owner, Frank Durkee, proclaimed that “no city in the world has a more modern, more luxurious, or more perfectly conceived theatre.”

While only several theaters downtown had rights to show first-run films until the middle of the century, the Ambassador became one of the first neighborhood theaters to offer that privilege to customers in the 1960s, the report said.

After it closed in 1968, the owners of Park Terrace Caterers bought the building and converted it into a dance hall and catering business, to residents’ opposition.

It served a variety of other uses before the 2012 fire, including a roller-skating rink, a cosmetology school and a church. CHAP said Gaston, its most recent owner, tried to sell it at auction in 2009 but didn’t receive any bids he considered worthwhile.

Ervin, a candidate for City Council in the 5th District, said he wants the theater restoration to initiate a bigger push to redevelop other sections of Liberty Heights Avenue and “attract families back into the community.” He noted along historically white corridors, like Eastern Avenue in Southeast Baltimore, developers and organizations have envisioned transformations encompassing multiple neighborhoods.

“In predominantly black spaces, we see those hotshot developments where you get a store,” like the ShopRite across from the Ambassador. “I’m just hoping that this conversation around the Ambassador will continue to spread into a conversation of really developing the corridor” down to Druid Hill Park, he said.

This will be Artspace’s first project in Baltimore, though the nonprofit has worked elsewhere in Maryland.

It’s currently pursuing the redevelopment of a former police station in downtown Silver Spring, converting it in 68 units of live-work artist housing, 11 townhouses and studios.

And in Mount Ranier, at the northeastern edge of D.C., it led development of a four-story, 44-unit building with affordable housing for artists and their families, and commercial space on the ground floor. That building opened in 2005.

This story has been updated.

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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