Watching progress on former Centre Theatre on North Avenue

After spending a few hours inside the former Centre Theatre on North Avenue, I had no trouble envisioning its dazzling future. What had been a partially roofless, water-saturated spongy mess of wet plaster is now thoroughly cleaned, a shell full of promise. Its raw bones are impressive. That said, it still lacks a roof. A weedy wetland of grasses still sprouts along its marquee. But not for long.

I stood on its top floor and looked across the city — north toward the Johns Hopkins University, whose film students will take courses here alongside counterparts from the Maryland Institute College of Art, whose main campus is visible to the west. I looked at the neighboring spire of the old Seventh Baptist Church and across the street to another theater, the Parkway, where a similar rebirth is promised.

I last visited the Centre in April. But when the initial cleanout was well underway, I was curious about this $18 million investment in the Station North community.

The two schools will share the second floor of the Centre, a building that seems to have been reinvented to accommodate the needs of succeeding eras. It is an enormous structure (73,000 square feet), one that performs a neat trick of appearing not all that large from its front at 10 E. North Ave., but extends through to 20th Street.

Its reclamation is a daunting assignment. The Hopkins and MICA classroom area is slated for completion in March 2015.

Southway Builders' John Diehl and Pat Irwin showed me a few vestiges of 10 E. North Avenue's life as an auto dealership and garage, built in an era when only the wealthy could afford a motorcar. The words "Run Slow" are visible on an old beam.

Local theater owner Morris A. Mechanic acquired the property and turned it into a film theater and radio station (WFBR) in 1939. In the process, the Centre acquired its natty travertine-clad tower. Perhaps it's a stretch to say this was Baltimore's version of Radio City Music Hall. The place sat 1,000 patrons.

I can also envision the flattering lighting treatment that architect Steve Ziger, of Ziger/Snead, will give this tower, marquee and facade. Its grimy sheets of white travertine marble, once cleaned up, will reflect light and infuse hope, credibility and a dash of glamour into North Avenue, which has so long seemed to be in an economically induced coma.

Here is a street that just slept, with an inventory of thoroughly substantial buildings boarded up. It seemed to have no purpose, while other parts of Baltimore experienced rebirths. Then, a few years ago, something called the Central Baltimore Partnership took the situation in hand.

"I've never seen anything like it in my 20 years here," said Amy Bonitz, the Centre's development project manager. "All the different people who have shared a common vision for North Avenue. I feel like it's the kind of building you could drive by a million times and never notice. But once the marquee and tower are restored and its Art Deco embellishments are lighted, it will stand out."

The Centre's developer is Jubilee Baltimore. Its president, Charlie Duff, worked closely with Fred Lazarus, the former president of MICA, and with Hopkins officials, including President Ronald J. Daniels. MICA had long had a presence on North Avenue, and Hopkins officials are enthusiastic about the prospect of what amounts to a new component for its sprawling Baltimore campus.

Architect Ziger's plans call for a new staircase and atrium. Local restaurateur Joe Edwardsen, of Joe Squared pizza, is taking one of the retail spots that will be created along North Avenue. The third floor, a large space that is temporarily open to the skies before a new roof goes on, is available for leasing.

"We had happy surprises as we got into the building," Duff said. "There was lots of old structure we couldn't see. The basic structure, including the roof over the old radio station, was in much better shape than it could have been. "

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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