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Lost City

Then and Now: the Mayfair Theatre on Fire

When we heard there was a two-alarm fire at the old Mayfair Theatre on the 500 block of North Howard Street last week, many MdHS staffers rushed outside and around the corner to see for ourselves. The once proud building is one of our favorite neighbors and we were all concerned. Most of us instinctually reached for our iPhones. James Singewald, Imaging Services technician and staff photographer, grabbed his camera.

[NN] Howard Street fire.  500 block, North Howard Street, Baltimore. September 24, 2014. Digital photograph by James Singewald.

[NN] Howard Street fire. 500 block, North Howard Street, Baltimore. September 24, 2014. Digital photograph by James Singewald.

Word spread quickly around the MdHS campus that the Mayfair was on fire. A coworker could see it from the window in his office. Then phones started ringing. Upon arriving it seemed most of the fire was in the building next door. Only the south corner of the theater was burning, though it appeared very charred. There have been conflicting reports on where the blaze started and we’re still not sure how it began. According to City Paper, the fire started in the Mayfair, but The Baltimore Sun reported that it started in the rear of the building next door, formerly known as the Golden Horse. The fire spread from 500 to 508 North Howard, with 504 N. Howard receiving the brunt of the damage. All of these buildings have been vacant, neglected, and deteriorating for years now.

From about 1824 to the mid- or late-1960s, the two buildings at the northwest corner of Howard and Franklin Streets [500-504], served as a hotel. From 1824-1840 William Frame  operated the Golden Horse Tavern on the site. From 1840-1858, the hotel was operated by Daniel McCoy (1807-1872). The name was changed to the Franklin House in 1859 when it was sold to George Leisenring. Since then the hotel has been known as the Delphey House, Academy Hotel, New Academy Hotel, Stanley Hotel, and the New Stanley Hotel. In the 1940s there was a Read’s Drug Store in the corner building [500-502], and in 1948, the New Stanley Hotel was operating in the smaller building next door [504]. The last known business that operated there was a nightclub called Bottoms Up.

Subject Vertical File  Natatorium.  Howard Street, Baltimore.  ca. 1880-1900. Filed in Baltimore City, after Museums and before Newspapers & Magazines.  Verso: "The Natatorium, on Howard Street, where the Auditorium now stands, was the 'best lil swimmin' hole' in these parts. The photograph, from the collection of J.E. Henry, 252 West Hoffman Streets, was taken in the late 1880s. The Natatorium was presided over by Professor Butterworth as swimming instructor, and many a Baltimore business man, now fat and 40, learned to swim in the big tank, which was two feet deep at one end and eight feet at the other. When the place lost its popularity as a swimming tank it was converted into a theater, art gallery and concert hall by the late James L. Kernan."

The back of this photo reads: “The Natatorium, on Howard Street, where the Auditorium now stands, was the ‘best lil swimmin’ hole’ in these parts. The photograph, from the collection of J.E. Henry, 252 West Hoffman Streets, was taken in the late 1880s. The Natatorium was presided over by Professor Butterworth as swimming instructor, and many a Baltimore business man, now fat and 40, learned to swim in the big tank, which was two feet deep at one end and eight feet at the other. When the place lost its popularity as a swimming tank it was converted into a theater, art gallery and concert hall by the late James L. Kernan.” Natatorium. Howard Street, Baltimore, ca. 1880-1900. Subject Vertical File, MdHS.

The site of the former Mayfair Theater has undergone many changes over more than a century. Originally, this was the location of the livery stables for the adjoining Franklin House hotel, mentioned above. In 1876 Silas Conn dubbed them the Academy Stables in honor of the neighboring Academy of Music. The stables last appeared in a City Directory in 1878 and were probably demolished soon after. By 1880 they had been replaced by the Natatorium, Baltimore’s first indoor swimming club. It was built by the Natatorium and Physical Culture Association of Baltimore City, which was formed by Dr. James A. Steuart. In 1885 the building was acquired by the Oratorio Society, and by 1890, James Lawrence Kernan bought the building with intention of converting it into a theater. He changed the name of the building to the Howard Auditorium and reopened it on April 6, 1891. Soon after, the name was shortened to Auditorium, which it was called for the next 49 years.

1994.42.042  Street scene.  Auditorium Theatre.  516 North Howard Street, Baltimore.  Also known as Kernan's Theatre and the Mayfair Theatre. Featuring "The Monkey Talks." Shows automobile parked in front. Ca. 1925. Unidentified photographer 8x10 inch silver gelatin print Julius Anderson Photograph Collection Baltimore City Life Museum Collection Special Collections

Auditorium Theatre, North Howard Street, Baltimore. Also known as Kernan’s Theatre and the Mayfair Theatre, ca. 1925. Unidentified photographer, Julius Anderson Photograph Collection, BCLM Collection, 1994.42.042, MdHS.

Kernan had long planned to build a brand new theater on this site, but wasn’t able to until 1903. In the meantime, he converted the Auditorium into a skate rink known as the Ice Palace for year round skating. His palace was plagued with operational problems, as one can imagine a year-round ice ink located in Baltimore in the 1890s would be, and by 1895, Kernan decided again to remodel the building into a vaudeville theater. Within less than a year from its re-opening, Kernan converted the Auditorium into a concert hall.

Howard Street and Franklin Street, ca. 1915 Shows The Auditorium Theatre (now Mayfair Theatre), Turkish Bath, Academy Hotel, Kernans Hotel (now The Congress apartments). Hughes Company, PP8, Z9.399.PP8, MdHS. Hughes Company Photograph Collection

Howard Street and Franklin Street, ca. 1915. Shows The Auditorium Theatre (now Mayfair Theatre), Turkish Bath, Academy Hotel, Kernans Hotel (now The Congress apartments). Hughes Company, PP8 Hughes Company Photograph Collection, Z9.399.PP8, MdHS.

In 1902, Kernan announced plans for the “greatest entertainment complex ever built in Baltimore, the Million Dollar Triple Enterprise.”  The Auditorium and the site adjacent to it were selected for a complex comprising of two theaters and a luxury hotel. The Maryland Theater was built around the corner at Franklin and Eutaw and opened on March 19, 1903. The original Auditorium was demolished in 1903 and the new Auditorium was built on the same site and opened on September 12, 1904. Kernan called it “without question the coziest and prettiest theater of its size in America.” On December 24, 1904, Kernan opened the Turkish baths in the basement of the Auditorium. The grand opening of the Million Dollar Triple Enterprise took place on September 4, 1905. It was described as “the greatest combination of buildings in the world.” (1)

During most of the 1920s and ’30s the Auditorium presented stock shows and by 1929, the theater was redecorated and wired for sound featuring two-a-day movies and a large orchestra. After a few shows, the theater went dark. The theater did not open again until November 1929 and by 1932 it was once again struggling. Financial hardships forced the Kernan Company to sell the properties. In July 1932, the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company of Philadelphia bought all three properties at auction for $225,000. Even with new ownership and mix of shows, movies, conventions, and even lectures, by the late 1930s the Auditorium was not able to stay open. In the summer of 1940, C.W. Hicks acquired the theater. After more re-modeling, the theater re-opened in 1941 entirely as a movie house, and was re-named the Mayfair. In 1957 it was acquired by JF Theatres, a Maryland chain ran by Jack Fruchtman that also controlled the Parkway and the Times (now The Charles) among others.(2) Its final re-modeling came in 1963, for the Baltimore premier of Lawrence of Arabia.

The Mayfair remained an operating movie theater until 1986 when it was put up for auction. The bid minimum was not met and it has remained vacant since. The city acquired the building the following year. In 1993 there was a glimmer of hope when the mayor announced a plan to make Howard Street the “Avenue of the Arts.” The plan never came to fruition. The roof collapsed in 1998 and the Mayfair has continued to deteriorate. Before the fire last week, workers had begun dismantling the theater’s marquee, recently deemed a safety hazard.

The future remains uncertain for the Mayfair, or rather its shell. The roof collapse and the fire do not bode well for it. On the other hand, the old structure is a survivor and with the revitalization of the Hippodrome, and renovation plans underway for old theaters like the Parkway and the Centre, one can hold out hope that the Mayfair, or at least its facade, will be added to the list of Baltimore’s historic theaters and buildings to be preserved. (James Singewald)

 

Sources and further reading:

(1) Robert K. Headley. Motion Picture Exhibition in Baltimore: An Illustrated History and Dierctory of Theaters, 1895-2004. 2006. McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers. [MPN 1993-5 475 H43], 206-207.

(2) “Jack Fruchtman Sr., 86, theater owner,” Fred Rasmussen, Baltimore Sun, July 3, 2001.

The Passano-O’Neill Files: Howard Street[500-504 North] & Howard Street [506 North].

“Howard Street Buildings that Burned have a Long History,” Jacques Kelly, Retro Baltimore /Baltimore Sun, September 26, 2014.

Urban Exploration: Mayfair Theatre, YouTube

The Mayfair on Kilduffs

The Mayfair on Cinema Treasures

Discussion

3 Responses to “Then and Now: the Mayfair Theatre on Fire”

  1. Thank you very much for sharing information!

    Posted by love hotel | 13. Dec, 2016, 5:47 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] “Downtown” district  also took the lives of the many theatres along North Howard Street: The Mayfair (formerly the Auditorium and Kernan’s), closed in 1965; The Stanley, demolished in 1965; The [...]

  2. [...] city’s demolition proposal follows the 2014 fire at the building and the demolition of the adjoining Franklin Delphy Hotel in May. The hotel, which [...]

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