The Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. Revitalizes a Bank Building into a Modern-day Globe-style Theater

Great storytelling is timeless, relating to audiences through a common human emotion or truth. so too, hopefully, are great buildings, connected properly to a sense of place, history and human experience. The members of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Co., Baltimore, already were expert stewards of old English plays, but they recently took on another historic task: the revitalization of the Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust into a magnificent modern Globe-style theater.

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. created its own Globe-style theater this side of the Atlantic in a Baltimore bank building built in 1885.

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. created its own Globe-style theater
this side of the Atlantic in a Baltimore bank building built in 1885.

Banking on Entertainment

Located between the Inner Harbor and Baltimore City Hall, the building is heavy rust-colored brick, thick and grounded. It boasted impenetrability when first constructed and, indeed, was one of few buildings to survive the devastating Baltimore Fire of 1904. Established to house an innovative new way of banking (one- stop convenience for checking, savings and loans), it was designed and built by notable local architects Wyatt & Sperry in 1885. It operated as a banking institution for nearly 100 years.

The distinguished landmark building anchored the financial district of Baltimore with strong Romanesque Revival features, fitting for its original use. Massive Roman arches and detailed carvings adorn the locally quarried stone. Inside, the building soars—the original rusticated columns draw the eye upward to the ornately coffered ceiling. When the bank closed in the early 1990s, a nightclub bought the building and performed a much needed renovation, revealing the ceiling and painting it brightly, creating an even more vibrant statement. A series of nightclubs operated there for nearly 20 years and, though these businesses kept the 22,000-square-foot building standing, they did little for its reputation.

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Co., a successful troupe with a summer series of outdoor performances in Howard County, was on the hunt for a building to settle into, make their own and grow from. Finding the Mercantile bank building (having now turned the page on its nightclub days) was an opportunity to custom-build a castle for their dreams. Wishes for their own Globe-style theater this side of the Atlantic could come true in a space like this. With seating so close to the stage, whispered stories could invite the audience to be eavesdroppers, to feel as if they were there, in the action. A location in center city offered access to travelers and tourists, as well as the responsibility to be an active citizen in the Baltimore arts community and an outlet for its youth.

Four-hundred Years of Architecture

The plays of Shakespeare were originally performed in outdoor venues, a tradition that Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. continues with its “in the ruins” plays in Howard County. Although the troupe’s new theater is fully enclosed, it is perfectly reminiscent of the Shakespeare experience in many other ways.

Architects Cho Benn Holback + Associates, Baltimore, highlighted and honored the bank’s original columns and ceiling while creating the theater.

Architects Cho Benn Holback + Associates, Baltimore, highlighted and honored the bank’s original columns and ceiling while creating the theater.

Seating the audience in three tiers exactly like Elizabethan-era playhouses invites a visitor to imagine the scene hundreds of years ago. There are bars on two floors open to the house, to encourage revelry from the crowd (though perhaps not as much revelry as the building’s nightclub days). Short side depths around a thrust stage create an intimate space, where the audience feels part of the performance.

Architects Cho Benn Holback + Associates, Baltimore, became true partners in the mission, seeking to use the building to its best advantage. Significant historic details—the columns and ceiling—were highlighted and honored while others were wryly repurposed. A first-level vault is now a children’s playroom, complete with its very own secure door. A catwalk, an original artifact previously used by bank security guards, now adds to the action with musical performances during interludes. A spiral stair, designed to facilitate the actors moving between floors, was replaced exactly where it is shown in old photographs of the bank. “There’s 400 years of architecture in one building—an Elizabethan playhouse, a Victorian bank and a 21st-century theater,” comments Ian Gallanar, artistic director of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Co.

Adaptive-reuse strategies delicately inserted transfer beams into the existing steel and terra-cotta structure, which now supports a modified mezzanine and new third-floor balcony. Southway Builders Inc., the Baltimore-based general contractor, put forth significant effort to ensure the installation went smoothly; each column and beam was hand carried into the space.

Limitless Entertainment

The new home of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. is very much like Shakespeare himself—steeped in history (reputable and notorious), wildly creative and thoughtfully constructed to support surprising twists. The “chameleon wall” in the upstage wall transforms for each play as the stage designer creates immersive sets. Originally envisioned as an erector set of parts to modify, clamp onto and remove as necessary, it has done much more than just act as a backdrop. Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. has used it to build-out in 3-D, creating for- ests, castles and Scrooge’s home at 200 E. German Street (the original bank’s address) in its annual production of “A Christmas Carol”. The possibilities of this stage are limitless.

To experience a theater-in-the-round requires the embrace of a building, and Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. has created an environment so comfortable and enchanting that you can get lost in the performance. “The actors perform in the audience, on the spiral stairs, on the catwalk. It’s an energetic and 3-D experience,” points out George Holback of Cho Benn Holback + Associates.

With seating so close to the stage, whispered stories invite the audience to be eavesdroppers, to feel as if they are in the action.

With seating so close to the stage, whispered stories invite the audience to be eavesdroppers,
to feel as if they are in the action.

The troupe also fosters relationships—between the text and contemporary issues, between the actors and their audience, and now too between the building and its community. Many visitors have memories of banking in the Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust, some even remember its iteration as a nightclub, and soon all will have the opportunity to view its history in an exhibit sponsored by the Baltimore National Heritage Area. A grant supports the exhibit as well as docent training so the Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. may preserve not only the space, but also its story.

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. is an expert in the continuous evolution of historic interpretation, translating old English Shakespeare for modern American audiences for almost 15 years. The troupe’s new chapter—played out in the old Mercantile bank building—has made the company caretakers of new stories. From a lintel, Mercury, the Roman god of economics and eloquence, grins, quite pleased.

Retrofit Team

Architect: Cho Benn Holback + Associates, Baltimore
General Contractor: Southway Builders Inc., Baltimore
Mechanical/Electrical Engineer: Mueller Associates, Baltimore
Structural Engineer: Mincin Patel Milano Inc., Baltimore
Theater Consultant: Theatre Consultants Collaborative, Toronto
Acoustic Engineer: Cerami, Washington, D.C.
Demolition: Interior Specialists, White Marsh, Md., (410) 335-0381
Plaster Restoration: McNieve’s Plastering, Baltimore
Masonry Restoration: Coastal Exteriors LLC, Cockeysville, Md.,
(410) 252-3411
Steel and Miscellaneous Metal Fabricator: Jarvis Steel and Lumber Co. LLC, Baltimore,
Miscellaneous Metal: ACI Inc., Elkridge, Md.

Materials

Custom Millwork: Grizz Custom Cabinets Inc.
Sound-control Door: Techstar Industries
Hollow Metal Doors and Frames: Ceco Door Products
Wood Doors: VT Industries
Storefront Doors: Vistawall International
Drywall: National Gypsum
Carpet: Tandus
Paint: Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams
Roller Shades: Mechosystems
Ductless Split Systems: LG
Electric Cabinet Heaters: Berko
Plumbing Fixtures: Sloan
Faucets: Kohler and Chicago Faucets
Water Fountain: Elkay
Elevator: Thyssenkrupp Elevators
Signage: Arundel Signs Inc.
Appliances: GE and EVI Foodservice Equipment

PHOTOS: Alan Gilbert

About the Author

Kristen Kearby
Kristen Kearby is marketing manager for Cho Benn Holback + Associates Architects, Baltimore.

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