November 9 2020

Reconceived Facades: New Roles for Old Buildings

There are a lot of great old buildings in Baltimore. From notable historic landmarks to classic examples of historic periods, the City's prominence in the late 19th and early 20th century is more than evident in the rich historic urban fabric. Stitched in between these iconic structures are many buildings built in the mid-20th century to serve functional needs in the community such as movie theaters, automobile dealerships, banks, and office buildings. It can be easy to overlook the importance of these utilitarian buildings, and many have been demolished to make room for new developments. But many of these buildings are now being transformed to serve new roles in the community. Inherent to these redevelopment projects is an opportunity to consider how the evolving purpose of the building can be projected through activation of a reconceived façade.

The Voxel

On 25th Street, the Homewood Theatre was built in 1946 and served the local art scene with foreign and independent films for decades. With dwindling population in the neighborhood, it closed in 1985 only to resurface a few years later as a church which stayed for a decade. It then had short lives as a Korean movie theater, live theatre, and finally as home to the Baltimore Rock Opera Society.

The Voxel Before Renovations

The Voxel Before Renovations. Top Left to Bottom Right: Homewood Theatre c. 1946, The Playhouse c. 1960’s, Showtime Theatre c. 2010, Autograph Playhouse c. 2015

When the "small but mighty" software company Figure 53 decided to purchase the building in 2015, it was with a commitment to serve the blossoming community at the confluence of Old Goucher, Remington, and Charles Village. They knew they wanted space to use as a teaching center and research lab for their software, but also knew the repurposed theater could be much more. Dubbed “The Voxel,” the new venue is intentionally conceived as a flexible and changeable space that is informed by community use.

Through a collaborative design process, the flexibility of the space informed a restrained approach internally while the exterior façade, marked historically by the typical projecting movie theater marquee, is reconceived. As the function within the building is intentionally varied, flexible, and responsive to the community, it was determined that the façade should also allow for the same variability.

The Voxel After Renovations

The Voxel After Renovations. Photographs by Karl Connolly

The former marquee is removed to allow for a new expression that incorporates a vertical glass light monitor shroud behind a suspended metal mesh screen. What historically was a static representation of the internal program with movie titles in changeable sign letters, is now a dynamic expression of light and color, motion and sound.

During the day and at night, the reconceptualized façade activates the street with a vibrancy that radiates throughout the neighborhood. The transformation is more than aesthetic but rather declares a new role for the building in the community. One that will evolve with time and purpose.

The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Building

Around the corner on North Charles Street, the main boulevard in the 'eclectic' Charles Village / Abell Historic District, a simple two-story brick building was constructed in the 1960s for commercial use. The building was likely part of neighborhood revival at the time, extending the commercial focus to the south into the architecturally unique residential neighborhood. The building itself is not considered significant nor contributing to the historic district. For the past two decades it served as the home to the important Baltimore Afro-American newspaper until the growing nonprofit Robert W. Deutsch Foundation purchased the building to serve as its headquarters as well as an incubator for the arts and arts-based startup businesses.

Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Building Before Renovation

Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Building Before Renovation. Photographs by Ziger|Snead Architects

With economical interventions a priority, the design team worked to transform the building's façade to project the Foundation's mission with declarative optimism. The former storefront was opaque and presented no transparency to the internal function. The new transparent storefront enhances access and visibility to the entry and gallery space. An angled intervention, a simple gesture, marks the entrance and responds to the northbound traffic. The south and east facades of the building are wrapped in a vibrant mural by Jessie and Katey that further communicates the building's activation.

Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Building After Renovations

Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Building After Renovations. Photographs by Karl Connolly

Even with these design moves, neither the client nor the design team fully understood how the street level spaces would be programmed and used. When BmoreArt, an independent arts-focused print journal, moved in and created exhibition space, the opened storefront provides transparency into the gallery and supported its mission of expanding momentum and awareness of art in Baltimore.

However, when everything shut down because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the gallery was turned inside out. Forced to innovate, the building's façade is converted into a 'surface for projecting video and digital works'. Exhibitions, like the recent Close Read, are now viewable entirely from the outside for people passing by and safely distanced outdoor gatherings. This innovation takes the conceptual intent for the opening of the building and elevates it to an unexpected level. Through a different approach to digital projection, the engagement of the building to communicate its purpose to the community is strengthened.

Bmore Art, Close Read

BmoreArt, Close Read: New Era of Programming at Connect+Collect In Response to COVID. Photographs by Cara Ober (top left, top right, bottom right) and Casey McKeel (bottom left)

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As designers we work to provide opportunities for the architecture of a building to not just functionally support an organization's missions but to contribute to its external communication actively and oftentimes unexpectedly. These two examples showcase this power of design to extend that impact and project optimism and progress for the community.

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Karl Connolly Photography

BmoreArt, Close Read: New Era of Programming at Connect+Collect In Response to COVID

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