The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Theatre in Baltimore's historic Mercantile Trust and Deposit Co. Building.

Stage Set

Downtown Baltimore’s historic Mercantile Trust and Deposit Co. Building has been rejuvenated, courtesy of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. The 1885 stone-and-brick Romanesque Revival structure, with its slate roof and Roman arches, had been employed as a nightclub from 2002 until 2012, when the CSC took possession. “Everyone fell in love when they saw it,” says architect George Holback of Cho Benn Holback + Associates, who spearheaded the $6.7 million transformation that won an AIA Maryland 2015 Citation Award.

“It was a cube, as tall as it was wide,” says Holback, pointing out that this meant the redesign could approximate Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre, a symmetrical (though round) space with shallow rows of benches rising high above the stage.

To create a Shakespearean-style layout, a core steel structure was inserted in the building’s interior, modifying an existing mezzanine level and supporting a new third-floor balcony. Seating faces the stage on three sides. The building’s ornamental interiors—including Corinthian columns and an ornately carved ceiling—were painted in bold, vibrant hues.

Surprisingly, the former bank adapted well to its new life as a theater. One-time vaults in the basement now house dressing rooms, costume storage and a green room, and are accessed via spiral and regular staircases. Tunnels leading to the vaults are now used for storage while a catwalk above the stage was original to the building.

Like Elizabethan audiences, those today—who sit on benches not more than six rows deep—enjoy communal, intimate performances. “The philosophy is interactive movement with the audience,” Holback says. “The actors perform in the audience, on the spiral stairs, on the catwalk. It’s a three-dimensional experience.”

RENOVATION ARCHITECTURE & INTERIORS: GEORGE HOLBACK, AIA, LEED AP, Cho Benn Holback + Associates, Baltimore, Maryland. DEVELOPER: Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Baltimore, Maryland. CONTRACTOR: Southway Builders, Inc., Baltimore, Maryland. PHOTOGRAPHY: ALAN GILBERT.