Senator Theatre

Added by Alison Chih Wai Chiu, last update: August 17, 2012, 12:07 pm

Senator Theatre
The Senator Theatre Facade, source: Tom Kiefaber, date: c. 2006
5904 York Road
Baltimore, MD 21212
United States
39° 21' 48.402" N, 76° 36' 37.5048" W
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Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Recreation (REC)
Secondary classification: Commercial (COM)
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places (August 24, 1989, Reference #89001153).
Baltimore City Public Interior Landmark, designated by the City's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).

History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

The Senator Theatre was designed as a neighborhood movie house and was the first theater in this developing area of Baltimore. Due to increased migration to the suburbs in the late 1930s and the demand for entertainment during the golden era of Hollywood, the theater was built at a rapid pace and opened within 6 months of beginning construction. Ample parking space was provided around the 1,024-seat venue, a typical size for neighborhood movie houses of the period.

To accommodate the tastes and social character of a new suburban middle class population, sleek lounges were designed for ladies and men. Treats were sold from the concession booth located at the inner lobby. Utilizing contemporary advanced film technology and projection equipment, movies were projected using standard 35mm film.

Dates: Commission / Completion:Commissioned by Durkee Enterprises; Inaugurated October 5, 1939 (e).
Architectural and other Designer(s): John J. Zink, Architect E. Eyring, Builder.
Others associated with Building/Site: Current owner: City of Baltimore Current operators: Buzz and Kathleen Cusack
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): A 1962 addition was constructed at the north wall and utilized as a dry-cleaning shop. After United Artists selected the Senator Theatre as Baltimore's first-run movie house in 1963, more attention was then lavished upon the small structure. The Senator Theatre was completely redecorated around 1970 (a) at a cost of $85,000. Over the years, the concession area was reconfigured and the number of available seating was reduced from 1,024 to 900. Original woodwork and wood panelings were covered and/or removed. Much of the interior painting, murals, and plaster work were covered and/or painted over with a different color scheme. The Cusacks, current operators of the property, are in the process of restoring original elements of the 1939 building. Proposed plans as of October 1, 2010 include the addition of a tapas bar, creperie, and a second movie screen. Restaurant services will occupy the addition at the north wall, along the front facade. A second screen theater space, accommodating 120 seats, is proposed for a new wing located at the south side of the existing building. Auditorium seating in the rotunda will also be renovated. The theater will be updated per current existing building codes.
Current Use: The theatre continues to operate as a first-run movie venue.
Current Condition: The theater is in good condition. Many of the original elements are still intact, including the cast aluminum ticket booth cap and facade banding, as well as the metallic/glazing systems with cast plaster decor at the mezzanine. Original ceiling murals at the concession lobby are delaminating, and have been compromised by the adhesive from installation of acoustic ceiling tiles. However, the murals will be stabilized during restoration. Original wood paneling at the rotunda will also be restored.
General Description:

Designed during the Depression, in the Art Deco style, the Senator Theatre is a small-scale neighborhood movie house. The theater exhibits a modern, streamlined form composed of a circular upper structure above a slightly curved brick base. The tripartite division of illuminated glass blocks, a material which became prevalent in the use of movie houses beginning in 1937, is accented by the solid massing of tower forms which flank the central axis.

The structure of the main lobby rotunda comprises the main feature of the facade, with vertical rows of glass blocks set against a simple limestone palette. Horizontal and vertical lines at the trim accent the geometric forms of the building. A curved, projecting marquee complements the circular structure located above.

The interior of the theater exhibits marble flooring and rich gilded finishes, in addition to painted murals over the cast plaster substrate. Stenciling and hand painted designs with aluminum leaf and glazed designs were also incorporated. Rich walnut paneling originally accented the smooth, restrained interior and was steam-heated to fit the curvilinear surfaces. Local Baltimorean artist Paul M. Roche painted the theater's twenty-two lobby murals, which display the evolution of performing arts history. Tropical fish were originally housed in the wall displays.

Construction Period:

The building was constructed over a six-month period in 1939, at a cost of $275,000.

Original Physical Context:

The Senator Theatre was built along York Road, the main thoroughfare that connected northern Baltimore suburbs, which were rapidly expanding at this time, to downtown. The theater became an instantly recognizable and unique modern landmark amidst surrounding small scale suburban residential development.

The theater remains an anchor within the present day commercial district of Belvedere Square, a hub of the North Baltimore area. The surrounding context retains the small scale of the neighborhood. Local cinematic achievements are documented outside, along the Walk-of-Fame sidewalk. The theater remains the primary venue for the Maryland Film Festival, and local directors and actors frequently choose to hold movie premiers at this venue.

Technical Evaluation:

The theater exhibits a double wythe, common bond brick auditorium base, which supports the limestone and structural glass brick upper portion and rotunda. The use of glass blocks at the curved front facade is the most extensive application of the material seen in local architecture.

Built during the golden age of talking pictures, the Senator was one of the early neighborhood movie houses to establish consistently high standards in synchronizing sound with moving pictures, with installation of the finest RCA sound system available when it opened. Movies were projected onscreen at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on 35mm film in accordance with the Academy Ratio standard, until the format changed in 1953.

The ability to contain cinema sound and eliminate outside noise, while at the same time properly distributing acoustics throughout large venues accommodating 1,000 or more patrons, was a technological challenge successfully addressed at The Senator through the use of fabric panels over a plaster substrate. For patrons with small children, the venue boasted a sound-proof nursery in the area now designated for VIP skyboxes. During the mid-20th century, this particular area of the theater was also used as a special section with advanced technological sound systems to aid a hearing impaired audience. Additionally, a specially designed air conditioning system with thermostatic control and an ice-cold water fountain were featured for modern movie-going comfort.

An innovative automatic projection booth which operated the curtains was installed at the Senator Theatre in the early 1970s. Most recently in 2003, the Senator Theatre became the first venue to complete the Historic Cinema Certification Program offered by the George Lucas company, THX Ltd. Today, the theater boasts a modern 40'-0" curved screen with state of the art projection systems and surround sound. The theater maintains projection equipment for showing 35mm and 70mm films.


In the years leading up to and during World War II, the nation's movie theaters played an imperative role in unifying Americans, supporting the war effort, and providing a collective social and entertainment escape amidst the melancholy atmosphere. NBC Broadcaster Walter Winchell proclaimed movies as the American Way of Life, noting the importance of the motion picture industry as a "necessary war industry." Directors, actors/actresses, and those involved in bringing movies to the audience appeared in support of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. Across the nation, the theater industry hosted recruiting events and benefits to collect scrap material for the war. Movie houses were also a major source for wartime news and stimulated patriotism by playing the national anthem prior to film showings.

Today, the Senator Theatre continues to promote a community spirit through annual fundraising events for local and national charities, such as the American Heart Association Go Red for Women. The annual Holiday Classics Series, with screenings of "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol", are a Baltimore tradition hearkening back decades, with proceeds donated to the Maryland Food Bank.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
The main theater facade fronts York Road, with its marbleized black Vitrolite entrance and freestanding neon signage highlighting the projecting marquee. The Art Deco facade exhibits a streamlined brick base with gently curving corners, which complement the curved glass block and limestone structure of the rotunda above. The lower brick banding of the facade wraps around to the south elevation, as does the prominent glass and limestone rotunda structure, which is visually anchored by towering limestone piers at each corner. In order to maximize space, the theater plan is angled towards the northwest corner of the lot. Upon entering, visitors are encompassed by the main lobby rotunda and domed overhead space, which highlights the theater's original function as a social gathering space. Movie-goers then enter a series of spaces, each progressively larger: a small, uneven hallway, a shallow curvilinear inner lobby, and finally, a grand theater auditorium with scalloped wall edges imperceptibly focusing attention towards the screen. A lounge for ladies and men each flank the inner lobby entrance across from the theater, encouraging patrons to linger during intermission and after the show. The architectural design of the plan itself unfolds the scenography of the American movie-going experience. The Art Deco style of the theater was a departure from the ornate Beaux-Arts style venues of preceding years. With the emergence of new modern architecture ideals, architect John J. Zink deftly expressed the theater's use of new technological developments and the emergence of new social and cultural values in the visual appeal of the building's curving, streamlined design. New materials were used in construction, and old materials were also used in new ways, representing changing industry development which would significantly impact the US economy and its ability to manufacture goods during World War II. The theater remains one of Baltimore's oldest and continuously operated movie houses. The National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the theater as "America’s quintessential independent historic movie house" in 2001. USA Today (2003) and Entertainment Weekly Magazine (2005) listed the Senator Theatre on their rankings of best movie houses/places to see a classic cinema.

The Senator has outlived other neighboring movie houses along York Road and the environs, many of which opened during the 1960s and closed in the 1980s. Representative of and integral to the early development of suburban Baltimore, the theater has been a recognizable cultural and emotional landmark for neighborhood patrons since it was built.

Architect John J. Zink designed over 200 theaters in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area from 1920-1950, but only a handful remain in use today. Although alterations have occurred since its original construction in 1939, this particular theater retains much of its architectural and aesthetic integrity, including the majority of original finishes and Art Deco ornamentation. Additionally, the alterations are generally reversible or capable of being fully restored. Throughout the years, the Senator has remained one of Zink's most notable and architecturally distinct theater works and is one of the best examples of its kind, particularly in the Baltimore area. It exemplifies both typical modern theater design parameters of the late 1930s, incorporated with its streamlined aesthetic, and highlights local cinematic and artistic achievements within the overarching development of performing arts history.

General Assessment:
The years 1935 - 1944 saw a building boom in relation to the rise of talking films and what is generally regarded as "The Golden Age of Hollywood." The Senator Theatre is a representative form of the technological developments that occurred during a transitional time in America's history, following the Great Depression and just prior to the nation's involvement in World War II. This historic landmark epitomizes the quintessential characteristics of the neighborhood movie house, with its restrained Art Deco ornamentation, beautifully proportioned form, and functional aesthetics. Its ongoing commitment to community enrichment initiatives and rich history of tradition makes it a valuable resource for the Baltimore community.
Text references:

"Art Deco or Depression Modern? Experts Say There Is A Difference," The Sun, April 29, 1984: H1, Retrieved February 1, 2011, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Baltimore Sun (1837-1985), (Document ID: 1864509212).

Castro/Arts, The Senator: Projected Improvements, The Senator Renovations Blog, October 1, 2010, accessed February 1, 2011,

James D. Dilts, "A Movie Palace That Prevailed And Just Matches Its Flick," The Sun, June 3, 1975: B1, Retrieved February 1, 2011, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Baltimore Sun (1837-1985), (Document ID: 1745705562).

Eli, "Baltimore Building of the Week: Senator Theatre," Baltimore Heritage, December 23, 2010, accessed February 1, 2011,

Evergreene Architectural Arts, "Senator Theatre: Examination of Historic Paint Finishes and Murals," Report prepared for The City of Baltimore, November 2, 2010.

Robert K. Headley, "Exit: A History of Movies in Baltimore," McFarland, Jefferson, 2006.

Geoffrey Himes, "Movies," The Sun, August 25, 1985: SM10, Retrieved February 1, 2011, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Baltimore Sun (1837-1985), (Document ID: 1865279052).

Annie Linskey and Chris Kaltenbach, "City Takes Over Ownership of Senator," Baltimore Sun, July 23, 2009, accessed February 1, 2011,

Larry Perl. "Coming Soon: New Owner Begins Renovating Historic Senator Theatre," The Baltimore Messenger, September 9, 2010, accessed February 1, 2011,

Dennis Sharp, "The Picture Palace and Other Buildings for the Movies," Frederick Praeger, New York, 1969.

The 1942 Theatre Catalogue, vol. 3, Jay Emanuel Publications, Inc., Philadelphia, 1942.

Lorna Williams, "Deco: Baltimoreans Are A Little Late In Discovering Its Historical Importance, But There Are Some Excellent Examples Here," The Sun, August 12, 1984: 1H, Retrieved February 1, 2011, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Baltimore Sun (1837-1985), (Document ID: 1855422422).

Recorder/Date: Alison Chiu Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation February 3, 2011
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