Ambassador Theater, after the fire

How bad was the damage to the old Art Deco movie house in northwest Baltimore?

ambassador fire 1

The scene after a two-alarm fire early Thursday at the old Ambassador Theater on Liberty Heights Ave. This appears to be the former ticket booth.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Continuing our recent Brew theme of hot weather and hot fires, we went over to Howard Park yesterday afternoon to check out the fire damage at the historic Art Deco-style Ambassador Theater – often described as the Senator Theatre’s sister movie house.

The charred interior of the building at 4604 Liberty Heights Avenue was still reeking of smoke in the wake of the two-alarm blaze early Thursday morning that drew crews from across the city. No injuries were reported from the fire inside the 76-year-old theater, which hasn’t been used as a movie house in decades.

Its current owner, Larry Gaston, of Silver Spring, has not returned a call from The Brew asking about the extent of the damage or his plans for the building. It’s located near the Gwynn Oak Avenue intersection, in a struggling part of the city,  sandwiched in between a gas station and a funeral parlor.

Across the street from the Ambassador, however, is a parcel that has received some attention from political leaders – the property where the long-vacant Super Pride supermarket was demolished and the city-subsidized Liberty Heights Shopping Center is planned to rise in its place.

“It’s really strange that this burned all of a sudden,” passerby Felder Chapel said Thursday. Chapel, who has lived nearby for four years, on the street behind Calvin Rodwell Elementary School, pointed over toward the vacant building lot when asked what he thought would happen to the Ambassador. “They might tear it down the same way,” he speculated.

The Ambassador Theatre, which stands just across the street from the city-supported Liberty Heights Shopping Center project.

The Ambassador Theater, located across the street from the city-supported Liberty Heights Shopping Center project (currently a cleared lot). (Photo by Fern Shen)

If that happened, it would mean the loss of another Baltimore architectural gem. The Ambassador’s striking vertical sign rises above a yellow brick building decorated with octagonal panels and black vertical stripes. Both it and the Senator, on York Road, were designed by architect John J. Zink.

Bidders at a 2009 auction of the property never went above $120,000 and the owner opted not to sell, according to a Baltimore Sun story. According to the piece, the Ambassador was one of the first neighborhood theaters to show first-run movies, ceased operation as a theater in 1968, functioned as a church and a school of cosmetology and has lately been vacant.

Small liquor bottles littered the sidewalk near the theater Thursday and massive poison ivy vines twined around the building’s walls and boarded-up windows.

Here’s a great website, Kilduff’s, with some photos and other artifacts from the Ambassador’s glory days.

Here are some pictures we took standing just outside the condemned structure:


Inside Baltimore's Ambassador Theatre, the morning of the fire. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Inside Baltimore’s Ambassador Theater, the morning after the fire. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Ambassador Theatre interior, after July 5 fire.  (Photo by Fern Shen)

Ambassador Theater interior, after July 5 fire. (Photo by Fern Shen)

ambassador exterior detail

Ambassador exterior detail. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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  • Kilduffstheatreindex

    Two Months ago, the old Gwynn Theatre across the street was torn down tp make way for the supermarket.

  • Tom Kiefaber

    RIP: The Ambassador Theatre, designed by noted theatre architect John J. Zink, Jr. for film exhibition pioneer Frank H. Durkee, Sr. & partners in the Baltimore-based Durkee Enterprises chain of “Neighborhood Theatres”. Opening on Liberty Heights boulevard in 1935, *The Ambassador* was John Zink’s quintessentially classy, art-deco design and it was futuristic, streamlined perfection. Four years later in 1939, the then-renowned Baltimore architect followed his Ambassador Theatre achievement with a more *moderne* influenced, art-deco showcase theatre For Frank Durkee, Sr., The Senator. 

    “Mr. Zink” was a brilliant * gifted perfectionist who abhorred profanity on the job site and rejected any and all materials that were not to his specific liking. A classical violinist, John ZinK once conducted the Baltimore Symphony. He studied in his youth under revered theatre architect,  Thomas Lamb

    In designing over 20 theatres for Durkee Enterprises organization, Zink designed his Durkee commissions to reflect the aura of grandeur and majesty of the larger downtown *palaces*, boasting the latest in comfort, accoutrements and technical achievements, yet in a reduced, then *suburban* scale. Zink’s unique theatre designs were hailed by his professional peers. 

    The Ambassador ceased exhibiting films in 1968.    

  • Antero Pietila

    The problem that led to the Ambassador fire was that no use could be found for the old theater. So it stood vacant so long that bad things happened. 

      I am for historic preservation. But unless an adaptive resuse is found, preservation is not going to happen.

      In any case, don’t we have some more important sites to save. Like the decrepit mansion on Lafayette Square. And one of Baltimore’s earliest extant wooden houses in the 1500 block of West Baltimore Street?

    • Christopher Forsberg

       I know about the Lafayette Square mansion you note — the Sellers mansion. It’s a shame about that one, it really could be a cornerstone for that block. I still hold out hope for it, because if the square ever comes back in any kind of way (even in Baltimore’s exceedingly slooooooow pace, where a decade can go by and it’s hard to be sure if improvement occurred), the Sellers mansion is going to be coveted. I think the potential is there for Lafayette Square b/c some of the Victorians surrounding the park are in decent shape and obviously have been cared for over the years…you can tell homeowners live here. There’s one stone house there in particular, a Romanesque Revival mansion on the south side of the park, on Lanvale St, which is a knockout….it would not look out of place in Bolton Hill or on one of the better-maintained blocks of Reservoir Hill. I can’t picture the wooden house you mention on Baltimore St, however….when I think West Baltimore St, I think cast iron fronts, not wooden houses…? I’ll have to google that one…

  • Antero Pietila

    The wooden house on West Baltimore Street s on the north  side, a few doors west of  the Stricker Street corner.
      As to Kiefaber RIPping the old Ambassador, I don’t see any evidence that the building is coming down. Who knows, maybe it will like so many vacants. I remember when it was a theater, a shoe store, beauty school, church.     If the building manages not to be destroyed, it should have a new lease on life when the new supermarket is opened across the street. On the negative side, the whole retail strip on Liberty Heights north of Gwynn Oak is in terrible shape. Lots of vacancies.

  • David C Jennings

    I want to bring the Ambassador Theater back to life as a theater. I need the first step… The owners contact information and a walk through. If anyone has contact information, please get a hold of me. At the risk of spam… I am leaving my email address. Please only contact me regarding the Ambassador Theater.

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