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Before lap dances and lattes: fire ignites interest in history of two Baltimore buildings

Above: The 400 block of East Baltimore Street in 1905. Flag-topped Lubins is at the center.

There’s a fascinating pre-porn history behind one of the buildings that burned in Monday’s spectacular fire in Baltimore’s red light district — it was part of the movie house empire of a larger-than-life German-Jewish optician-turned-filmmaker named Siegmund Lubin.

Likewise, it turns out that Baltimore Sun founder A. S. Abell made his final home in the structure that burned, hours later, in a second five-alarm fire  in Mount Vernon, a building better known these days as the high-profile home of several  trendy restaurants: Donna’s, My Thai and Indigma.

As police and fire officials sort out the causes of the two fires, preservationists and community leaders are reflecting on the buildings’ role in Baltimore history.

“All these buildings are significant and we are just glad they’re still standing,” said Eli Pousson, field officer with Baltimore Heritage, who was in great demand yesterday fielding calls and inquiries from all over town , as fires broke out in two of the most architecturally and historically rich parts of the city.

Pousson’s post on the preservation organization’s blog lays out some of the history he unearthed on the quick yesterday.

The 400 block of East Baltimore Street, Gayety Show World is the green awning. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The 400 block of East Baltimore Street, the morning after the fire. Gayety Show World is the business with the green awning. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Initial reports that the historic Gayety Theater was aflame initially sent him down the wrong preservationist path – as it turned out, the building that was burning was the less-well-known-and-flashy structure across the street, Gayety Show World. Today, it includes dance bars (The Blue Mirror and The Plaza) as well as the Gayety’s printed material, videos and private viewing booths.

The Gayety Show World building was originally Lubins Theater, one of several movie and vaudeville houses built in that part of East Baltimore Street after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, Pousson discovered.

Lubins was one of a vast network of theaters built or acquired by Philadelphia-based motion picture pioneer Siegmund Lubin, born Siegmund Lubszynski in Breslau, Germany in 1851.

After emigrating to the U.S. with a leather case full of eyeglasses that he peddled on the streets, Lubin opened an optical shop in Philadelphia in 1885 and soon developed a fascination with Thomas Edison’s moving picture machine, eventually making and selling his own camera-projector device. Gradually, Lubin moved into making and distributing movies and building movie theaters as well.

It wasn’t just new technology Lubin was developing but that concept of “vertical integration” of the movie business. The movies he made ran the gamut: comedies, boxing films, serious films condemning anti-Semitism, films that were basically remakes of other successful pictures, like The Great Train Robbery and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Although he started out as an admirer, he eventually became a competitor with Edison, who sued him repeatedly for patent infringement. At the height of his career he lived in mogul splendor and had a kind of movie-making colony in Philadelphia, of all places. Ironically, it was a 1914 fire at his main studio that hastened his end.

Double theaters: an idea born In Baltimore

The opening of Lubin’s double theater in Baltimore in 1907 marked the beginning of a new concept for him, according to Joseph P. Eckhart’s fascinating book The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin. He writes:

The Lower Hall offered movies with special Baltimore subjects and illustrated singing by “high-class vocalists. In the theater upstairs, where the best seats cost ten cents, he offered vaudeville as well as movies. Lubin spent a great deal of money renovating the house, adding an elegant façade studded with incandescent bulbs. The following year he opened another theater next door at 408-410, thus creating the first triple-cinema complex. This theater, also featuring vaudeville and movies was even more elaborate with a cream and gold décor heavy with plaster figures and brilliant with hundreds of light bulbs.

Mount Vernon splendor for newspaper owner

As for the Mount Vernon building, known as Park Plaza, it was built in the early 1850’s, according to Baltimore Heritage. (The Sun’s Ed Gunts, writing last night,  said said the building “was constructed for residential use in 1842.”)

Arunah Sheperdson Abell bought the building in 1883 and remained there until his death, according to Pousson.

According to a biography of Abell that describes the building:

“The house is a four-story marble and brick building, which include about 25 rooms, and a magnificent winding staircase in the center of the dwelling, which towers to the roof, and in itself gives an idea of the elaborateness of the dwelling.”

Baltimore firefighters were still hosing down the Park Plaza building, once the home of Sun founder A.S. Abell, the morning after the fire. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

Baltimore firefighters were still hosing down the Park Plaza building, once the home of Sun founder A.S. Abell, the morning after the fire. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

Along with the ground floor restaurants, the building’s current tenants include Baltimore Education Scholarship Trust, the architectural firm of Murphy and Dittenhafer, Zenith Healthcare and Maryland Capital Management.

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