Baltimore Sun: Motor House Art Center to Anchor Station North Neighborhood

Motor House arts center to anchor Station North neighborhood.

Jacques Kelly Jacques KellyContact Reporter
The Baltimore Sun

March 20, 2015

Excitement and anticipation filled a vacant automobile sales agency this week. A $6.5 million refurbishment of the newly named Motor House on North Avenue was being celebrated as this arts center project gets launched. I watched its prospective tenants walk this 1914 structure’s bare wood floors and envision the new life this fine structure promises as its makeover begins.

It’s being called an arts anchor facility for the Station North neighborhood, but this neighborhood is one with plenty of big-deal spaces.

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Doreen Bolger, left, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and Jane Brown, president of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, stand outside of Motor House, formerly the Load of Fun art space and a car dealership on North Avenue. Arts groups will move into the new arts center in the fall. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

Ten years ago, who would have thought that two college presidents, bankers, nonprofit foundation leaders, engineers and architects would be at 120 W. North Ave. to herald the rebirth of an old Graham-Paige auto showroom?

I watched Doreen Bolger, Baltimore Museum of Art director and long a champion of North Avenue’s potential, congratulate Jane Brown, president of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, whose nonprofit Baltimore Arts Reality Corp. is making the Motor House a reality. There’s public investment, too. The state’s Maryland Historic Trust awarded the Motor House a $454,000 tax credit and there was a state bond bill of $100,000.

“No one building alone can transform the community. It’s a collaborative effort,” Brown said.

As a Guilford Avenue-born Baltimorean, I observed this urban neighborhood over six decades. Its unpredictability and quirkiness are appealing. It was the place where I first patronized a fast-food business, the old Gino Marchetti franchise at North and St. Paul that rose shortly after the old Northminster Presbyterian Church was demolished.

The neighborhood remains sketchy-looking, even as an estimated $65 million has been invested into it in the past few years. But it’s that Baltimore rough-and-tumble appearance of authenticity and the feel of being on the edge that so many people like today. In this, Station North is something of a 2015 version of what the foot of Broadway in Fells Point was like in 1970.

On North Avenue, there are businesses that remind me of the loneliness of an Edward Hopper painting. It’s a place where dubious bars coexisted happily with respected neighboring institutions such as churches, schools and retail businesses. A zoning classification of mixed use serves it aptly.

It’s now being reclaimed by students from the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Baltimore. The Johns Hopkins University will have a presence this fall. And yet, I recall when the then all-male Polytechnic Institute was the major academic presence. There is also a thriving Montessori School on Guilford and Lanvale and the Baltimore School for Design at 1500 Barclay.

I’ve known the new Motor House by many names, most recently the Load of Fun, where numerous artists had studios and where the Single Carrot Theatre gave performances.

MICA presidents present and past were at the Motor House launching event. Samuel Hoi, the recently installed art school president, paced the structure’s expansive upper floors and discussed the future with some of the arts organizations that will take up residency here in November, after the mechanical-architectural upgrades are completed.

Fred Lazarus, who guided the arts institute from 1978 to 2014, recalled how Sherwin Mark established the Load of Fun space in 2005. Load of Fun and its artists were agents for change in Station North.

“He deserves a lot of credit,” Lazarus said.

So who’s moving to the Motor House? Many organizations, including the Monument Quilt. I met Hannah Brancato, who is with the Monument Quilt, which she described as a “platform to work together to forever change how communities respond to rape.” The quilt will be completed in one of the Motor House’s studio spaces. Her group is now in a Greenmount Avenue space.

“The quilt will eventually blanket the National Mall,” Brancato said. “We are creating a new culture where survivors are publicly supported, rather than publicly shamed.”

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