The deep-fat fryers haven’t sizzled for years at the corner of North Avenue and Charles Street, but something is cooking in the building where New York Fried Chicken (and before that, a White Tower restaurant) once operated.
The City of Baltimore is leasing the former greasy-spoon storefront to Station North Arts & Entertainment Inc. and the Baltimore Annex Theater.
If the project gets the renovation funding it needs through grants and a recently-launched Kickstarter campaign, organizers say that a power-hungry Scottish King and a boy obsessed with horses could soon be among the theatrical characters performing where short-order cooks once produced three-piece wing-and-thigh specials.
“Equus I think we’ll stage right there,” the Annex’s artistic director Evan Moritz said yesterday, pointing past a plastic menu sign showing the prices for “Lake Trout Fish,” “Shrimps,” “Sweet Potato Pie” and other items. “The stage will project out like a knife.”
For the past decade, attention has focused on the idea of redeveloping a larger, more highbrow building next door – the ornate-but-crumbling Parkway Theatre, also owned by the city. But caught in the cycle of government deal-making and deal-breaking, the Parkway project has been stalled for years.
Now Station North is looking at the humbler structure next door, New York Fried that’s been closed since 2009, to give this key corner a quick lift.
“Like all development projects [the Parkway] is going to take a while,” said Ben Stone, Station North’s executive director. “I proposed we do something in the interim to activate this intersection. . . I was frustrated.”
They negotiated a one-year, one-dollar lease for the New York Fried building at 1 West North Avenue, with an option to renew for another year.
Short-term Lease, Long-term Plan
For Station North, the non-profit which oversees Baltimore’s flagship arts district north of Penn Station and south of 20th Street, the location would serve as their office and a kind of visitors’ center.
“People coming up from Washington to check out Station North might look around on a day like today and wonder ‘Where is it?’” he said, noting that the building could have information or a calendar or brochures available after hours.
Stone said his group would occupy a couple of desks in the back, where the walk-in freezer is currently located. Moritz said the Annex would use the renovated front room for performances, the first one being Equus, opening on January 31.
When the space isn’t needed for Annex performances, Stone said, it would be used as a gallery for exhibitions, including one to be put on this spring by Maryland Institute College of Art.
What about The Parkway?
For the last year, the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) has been mulling over proposals to develop the century-old Parkway, along with the New York Fried building and the nearby – and extremely dilapidated – 1820 N. Charles St. property. (Yesterday, daylight could be seen through open upper-story windows of this city-owned property. Small trees sprout from the ornate stone masonry.)
Stone said the BDC will announce “very soon” which of three latest proposals they have chosen.
One is by the Maryland Film Festival/Cross Street Partners (Jed Dietz) “to house a year-round film, digital-video and live-music center in fully renovated and restored theater buildings.” The Film Festival is coordinating its plans with Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Another proposal is by Property Consulting, Inc. (Samuel Polakoff) and Toby Blumenthal in which The Parkway would be renovated for live entertainment.
A third is by Kevin Brown, Gregg Mason and David Sawyer would include a stage, a restaurant, a wellness center, offices and third-floor residential units.
Keeping it Simple
Stone said their year-to-year lease and minimal renovations – they don’t plan, for example, to fully restore the tin tiles they found under the drop-ceiling – won’t hinder the larger Parkway project, whenever it moves forward.
“When it’s time for us to leave, we’ll just leave,” he said.
Yesterday, Stone and Moritz showed a visitor around the place, where a walk-in freezer, dirty metal sink and stove hood still need to be removed.
Protruding up from the grimy floor is a pipe leading to the grease trap, where fried fat odor still emanates. Capping it, cleaning and painting the floor, redoing electrical, building new walls, making the bathroom meet ADA standards – all are on their punch list.
Stone says they need at least $25,000 which they plan to raise without using public funds. In addition to their $10,000 crowd-sourced campaign, they hope to get funding from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation and ArtPlace America, he said.
Amid the gutting, some old restaurant features will remain. The tin ceiling will be secured but left alone. The 12-panel plastic sign with menu items and prices, Stone said, is going to stay.
Also remaining will be some remnants of the graffiti – in particular, “KEEP GOIN TILL I DIE” – that has proliferated on the windows, making the place a kind of vibrant street canvas already.
Promising but Vacant Space
Yesterday, several people stuck their heads in the door, asking if the place was open or if a development project has been chosen.
“That happens every time I’m in here. There’s huge interest in this space,” Stone said.
It’s easy to see why. The shuttered New York Fried is at the center of the city’s first arts district, a lively area where artists’ studios, theater companies, restaurants and bars like Joe Squared Pizza and Liam Flynn’s Ale House exist amid gritty blocks of vacant buildings and trash-strewn lots. It’s also a busy spot for bus commuters transferring between north-south and east-west routes.
Yesterday a man chatted on a cellphone in the sun as he sat in one of the bright-red metal chairs outside the former Morgan Millwork building on North Avenue, now MICA’s Studio Center. In the median, a woman was holding a sign saying, “Pregnant need help.”
In an effort to liven up one of those empty spaces, Stone said, Station North has been negotiating with the owner of the empty lot on the northwest corner of North Ave. and Charles, to see if he will lease it for use as event space or just permission to put plantings there.
Load of Fun Update
Earlier this year, a new building was added to the district’s list of troubled addresses when the Load of Fun Building (20 West North Avenue) was hit by code violations (lack of sprinklers, electrical issues), leading the owner to ask some 40 artists and arts groups, including the Single Carrot Theatre, to leave so he could make repairs.
A $100,000 grant for repairs is being sought from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.
Stone said that funding has been secured and that the owner is working with the city to determine what work needs to be done to re-open.
Station North’s desire to get something going dovetailed with The Annex’s desire to get a space that’s more permanent and visible.
Moritz said the five-year-old theater company has been staging short-run productions in out-of-the-way warehouse spaces like the H & H Building and that the audience appetite for such shows is lately ebbing.
“We’d do a show in a 12,000-square-foot space and on a good night get 100 people,” Moritz said. “We figured this way we’ll have a longer run in a smaller place with a more intimate feel. We wanted a bigger season.”
If displacement and transition are the leitmotif in Station North these days, it’s a theme Stone knows from experience. After MICA renovated the Morgan Building they had to leave their office space and have been in less-than-optimum space in the Walbert Building.
“They let us stay there as long as they could,” Stone said with a grin, “and then 15 or 16 months ago, they kicked us out.”