Baltimore Building of the Week: Senator Theatre

One of the most exciting stories for a historic building in the past year has been the unfortunate closure then welcome rebirth of The Senator Theatre. Read on for Dr. John Breihan’s second to last Baltimore Building of the Week and find more information on the ongoing renovations of this building at the Senator Renovation Blog.

The Senator Theatre

Image courtesy zizzybaloobah

Although it has reigned for decades as queen of Baltimore movie theaters, the Senator was built as a “neighborhood house,” offering only faint competition to the downtown picture palaces like the Hippodrome. It opened in 1939, with streamlined architecture reminiscent of a Chrysler Air-Flow or a Lockheed Vega, and a location in the midst of a neighborhood shopping district (which still contains some other art-deco standouts). For years, the Senator managed to get by despite the megacomplexes in suburban malls. In 2009, it was bailed out by the City of Baltimore and placed under new management. Any future alterations will have to conform to review by the City’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. In an unusual move, CHAP designated the theater’s distinctive interiors (including decorated rest rooms) as city landmarks, as well as its exterior.

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About Eli

Eli Pousson started as a Field Officer at Baltimore Heritage in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in October 2009. Prior to moving to Baltimore, Eli worked for the DC Office of Historic Preservation and completed graduate work in anthropology and historic preservation at the University of Maryland College Park. Eli continues to work with the Lakeland Community Heritage Project and other heritage organizations in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

  • Laura P.

    The Senator closing and reopening is not one of the most exciting preservation stories of the year, but one of the most tragic. Basically, there was no problem with The Senator or the way it was run, except for the obvious one of single screen movie theatres all over the country being an outdated and dying economic model, until Baltimore City and specifically the BDC created a larger problem by fighting, undermining, and setting up roadblocks for the extremely passionate, preservation-oriented former owner for over a decade.

    If Baltimore City had gotten on board and actually helped (instead of just pretending to help while using a loan guarantee to get their financial hooks in the building) when Tom Kiefaber tried to set The Senator up as a non-profit, The Senator would already be fully restored. Instead, they’ve turned it over to a new for-profit operator who doesn’t have Kiefaber’s family history with the building, doesn’t really appear to care about the building except for whatever money he may be able to squeeze out of it, and doesn’t intend to do a full restoration. In fact, the renovation plan is so bad and threatens so many parts of the building that can be considered character-defining that it was recently turned down for historic tax credits by the Maryland Historical Trust.

    Take a look at The Senator today. The marquee has been neglected by the new operators for the past few months, to the point where they won’t even change the lightbulbs that are burnt out under the marquee. A substantial portion of the neon is out, including the word “The” and the letters “NA” in the building’s name. There’s also graffitti all over the building on the Rosebank Ave side.

    Kiefaber never let it get like this. Even when he could not afford to do major projects like exterior paint, he kept every lightbulb lit and would not let marquee lights be out for a single day without making arrangements to do something about it. What he lacked in funds, he did his best to make up for in passion and personal elbow grease.

    I am terribly afraid that the current path the city has The Senator on, with a new operator who is already negligent and turning in sub-standard renovation plans to state agencies, is going to end in real tragedy for one of Baltimore’s most beloved and significant buildings.

  • Laura P.

    Furthermore, in the interest of truth in reporting, I think the local media (as well as this blog) need to start publishing photos of what The Senator looks like at night now, not what it looked like (past tense) at night under Kiefaber’s ownership. Your photo here is during Kiefaber’s ownership. It doesn’t look nearly that good now.