Since its last movie screening in 1968, the historic Ambassador Theater in Howard Park has been a cosmetology school, a dance hall and a Baptist church — and in recent years a vacant shell.
The Baltimore neighborhood's hopes for revitalization of the Art Deco structure are again up for discussion, after a two-alarm fire tore through the interior last week. An owner described the damage as "minimal" — up to $20,000 — and he and others nearby see an opportunity for the theater.
The Ambassador, constructed by the Durkee organization, which also built the Senator on York Road, opened on Sept. 18, 1935. Designed by John Zink, the Ambassador held a capacity crowd of 1,000 in its heyday. Barry Levinson, the acclaimed director who grew up in Northwest Baltimore, has recalled seeing"On the Waterfront" at the Ambassador as a transformative moment in his understanding of film.
"We are not disturbed; we are determined to renovate the building," said Renny Bass, a Baltimore contractor and co-owner of the structure. His group has tried to sell the theater in the past, and community leaders are hoping that, with a supermarket set to open across the street, the property could play a new role in Howard Park.
Bass' co-owner, Larry Gaston Enterprises, failed to draw a buyer in a July 2009 auction. After asking a starting price of $100,000, the owners decided they were not willing to sell at that price. The auctioneers ended the auction without a sale when no one bid higher than $120,000.
City CouncilwomanRochelle "Rikki" Spectorof District 5 said the Ambassador's history goes back as far as she can remember.
"It was a part of growing up, part of my childhood," Spector said. "It's lived several lives since then — none of them good." She said the building had suffered "benign neglect, if nothing else."
A new ShopRite supermarket across the street is set to open across the street in early 2013, and Spector and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg expect its momentum to carry over into neighborhood talks about uses of the Ambassador.
Spector said theBaltimore Development Corp.had inquired about buying the 76-year-old theater, but given the resources expended to bring in ShopRite, "could not justify that kind of money." The supermarket developer paid $2 million for the city-owned land that was home to a Super Pride grocery storefront more than 10 years ago.
Bass said the building has been empty since he's owned it, during which time he says he's been in communication with neighborhood leaders to see what they'd like to see there. He believes the fire was set; the Fire Department has not established a cause.
He hopes the theater could be an offshoot of a cultural arts center soon to open on Howard Street and is also considering an idea for a health care clinic.
The city has condemned the building, Spector said, and plans for its future will likely be discussed at a Howard Park community meeting Tuesday.
"The community has been eyeing it for a long time," Spector said. "It could be a cultural center, a multipurpose center for the community."
Rosenberg said he hopes to see a "positive spillover" from the ShopRite at the Ambassador. He acknowledged the theater's history, but said the building's future should be the focus, not its past.
"What counts now is to have a use in that building that complements what's going to be happening across the street at the grocery store," Rosenberg said.
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