Written by Christina Taylor
Photos by Brooke Hall Allen
I originally sat down with this piece thinking that I was going to serve the death of The Mechanic with some sort of eulogy. As we know too well, things don’t always go as planned and little by little our ideas fall apart. To be honest, I only met its backside on stressful trips downtown on my bike, so I reached out to members of the community that might have a little more insight on this highly controversial building. Disappointed that I did not have much to add to the piece, I sulked and dragged my feet during the process. It wasn’t until I got this modest, deeper than I expected, reflection from a Baltimore architect, Eric Lowe, that I truly felt inspired to look at this building in a whole new light.
“The Mechanic was a hard building to love. Cold, alien, and detached from street life, it was a perhaps a symbol of good intentions gone horribly wrong. It took me a while to come around to appreciating it in total. I always appreciated it as a finely executed example of the Beton Brut style (ie: Brutalism).
Incidentally, Johansen’s Goddard Library on the campus of Clark University in Worcester, MA is another great example of Beton Brut that lives on in “good” health. I never got to go inside the Mechanic, but I did enter the Goddard. I suspect the interiors probably shared some of the same material qualities. This was what gave The Mechanic its quality. The texture of the concrete, the sculptural form attesting to what people were getting up to inside its walls, and the unabashed willingness to ignore received wisdom as to how a building should sit on a site.
As a young architect in Baltimore, my main gripe with the building was from more of an Urban Design perspective. I complained about how it met the street to anyone who would listen. My favorite jab was to say that the theater was mooning Charles street by exposing the garage entrance to what was arguably its most important side. The Baltimore street facade was only slightly more engaging.
The reason I finally came around to full appreciation of the building was its quality as a symbol. A symbol of Baltimore’s willingness to take bold action at a time when city leaders saw what precipitous decline in the fortunes of downtown and decided to act. The Mechanic was the jewel in the composition of modern towers interconnected by flying bridges to carry pedestrians over the streets below. There was a time in the mid-20th century when Baltimore was the top destination for the most creative city planners in the country. By tearing it down, we will effectively lose the cultural memory of that moment in time.”
The demolition, or death of, of a building can be seen as a reflection of its life. Paying homage to what it stood for, literally and figuratively, the death of a building taps into more than what meets the eye. The Mechanic Theatre’s demolition, as long and drawn out as it is, has sparked discussion among many Baltimore residents. Some say that the Mechanic’s time has come, with its back towards Charles Street, they see this building as an eye-sore. The failing interest in Brutalism, its strong and structured body, inability to gain interest from traveling theater groups—all reasons as to why this building should be laid to rest.
On the other hand, many have opposed this demolition since the theater was sold back in 2005. Efforts to keep this building intact have failed, despite protests stating that this building should be deemed a landmark. Jonathan Caplan of Baltimore writes, “The Mechanic was my favorite building in Baltimore. I think it’s really sad that it’s getting torn down. Charles St was the back, many people never even viewed it from it’s actual front on the plaza. It was rad. I don’t understand why certain artistic or architectural styles come under attack. What did Brutalism ever do to you? The high rise condos that are gonna be built there will probably be another of those blue-glass, futuristic, cell phone-looking buildings. Next year they’re gonna tear down the fountain at McKeldin Square. Probably build another sleek, boring-ass building.”
The fact remains that the Mechanic Theatre, a building that once brought joy, artistic expression, and a restored faith in community to Baltimore, has lost its long, drawn-out battle with death. With its fate sealed and our hands tied, let us remember that all buildings hold a stake in our lives—born out of ideas and creating memories when laid to rest.