Johns Hopkins, MICA put down roots in Station North Arts and Entertainment District

It's noisy and dusty up on the second floor of 10 E. North Ave., the century-old building about a mile south of the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus whose sleek (if somewhat battered) moderne facade of contrasting travertine and soapstone dates to the 1939 opening of the erstwhile Centre Theatre here. The voluminous, three-story structure between Charles and St. Paul streets had begun life as a garage for Packards and Studebakers and in the late 1950s was ignobly carved up into banking offices. Then came vacancy and decay.

Image caption: Thomas Dolby, the first Homewood Professor of the Arts, in the former Center Theatre, which next fall will house the Johns Hopkins–MICA Film Center. Of the revitalization of the Station North neighborhood, Dolby says, “Given the broader implications for the city of Baltimore and the state, it’s a much grander project than I’ve been involved with in the past. It’s exciting.”

Image credit: DAVE COOPER

On this fall afternoon, however, power tools roar away and welding sparks rain down as scores of construction workers endeavor to repurpose it for its latest role: a cutting-edge film and audio facility to be co-managed by Johns Hopkins and the Maryland Institute College of Art. There's really not much to see within the bare brick walls at present, and it's so loud you can barely hear yourself think, but come next fall, this is precisely where Hopkins and MICA students will gather to think about the artistic pairing of sights and sounds.

Hopkins and MICA are sharing the $10 million cost for an initial 10-year lease of the entire, roughly 25,000-square-foot, second floor and a build-out to include recording studio, soundstage, screening rooms, editing suites, and classrooms. The collaboration is to be known as the Johns Hopkins–MICA Film Center. (The building's other tenants, at this writing, are a nonprofit jewelry-making center, neighborhood revitalization charities, and a pair of restaurants.)

The din doesn't deter Thomas Dolby, the 1980s synth-pop icon turned soundtrack composer turned audio entrepreneur—and most recently, turned Johns Hopkins' first Homewood Professor of the Arts. He strides amid the cacophony unfazed, enjoying his first in-the-flesh look at what will eventually be his domain. A dapper fedora temporarily swapped out for a hard hat, the English-born professor scans architectural drawings as he explores the bustling space. It seems he could add design consultant to his resumé.

"Initially, the recording layout was not really ideal," he manages to say above the noise, a hand sweeping across the drawings. "Along with the recording arts folks from Peabody, we sort of stuck our noses in and made some suggestions about the recording studio orientation and so on."

From windows in the building's southwest corner (glassless at this point) you can easily see the buff-brick Parkway Theatre a block away. This long-neglected 1915 movie palace is slated for a $17 million renovation into a three-screen, 600-seat film center by the Maryland Film Festival, a nonprofit organization celebrating the cinematic arts. It, too, will have facilities for Hopkins and MICA film students, and the schools will be able to do some programming within, hosting visiting filmmakers and the like. The Hopkins Development Office is busily assisting the Film Festival with fundraising efforts. Construction crews could be at work by summer.

"It's going to be amazing here—just fantastic," Dolby says. "I can't help thinking it's all going to trigger big changes in the neighborhood."

In a very real sense, these sentiments have been part of the plan all along.

The Centre and Parkway theaters are in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, a roughly 20-block chunk of midtown where state tax breaks and other incentives aimed to spur artistic activity have already brought some big changes to an area long scarred by vacancy and disinvestment. Since the area's arts designation in 2002, boards have come off windows and lights turned back on as galleries, performance venues, and arts-oriented restaurants and cafés have bloomed. The Maryland Institute, whose campus adjoins the district to the southwest, was the first large institution to get involved, when it opened its five-story Graduate Studio Center in a vacant clothing factory on North Avenue in 2012. And now it's Hopkins' turn.

"A lot had to happen before Station North became a good place for Hopkins and MICA, and fortunately it did," says Charles Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, the nonprofit development and revitalization firm that owns the Centre and will soon break ground in the district on its second apartment building offering affordable artist housing. "Still, the idea of a Homewood academic department moving to North Avenue? I never dreamed of that in a million years, and it's very exciting."

"Hopkins and MICA don't make decisions on a whim," adds Ben Stone, president of Station North Arts and Entertainment Inc., the nonprofit that oversees and promotes the district's artistic development. "When they invest in a building and move programs into it, you know they are going to be there long term. It sends a positive message to others interested in investing here that things really are moving in a different direction."

Andrew Frank, special adviser to Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels on economic development matters, says the university is committed to supporting Station North in multiple ways. One, he says, is the big ticket: "The university is collaborating with MICA to create a small campus for Hopkins that's about halfway between Peabody and Homewood to try and connect them through a strong spine up Charles Street."

Repurposing two hulking and vacant theaters can only spur additional economic activity and vitality in the area. "I know a lot of people in Station North are interested in more daytime foot traffic, which the students will bring, and that will be great," says Stone, mindful of the many vacant storefronts and underutilized properties remaining within the district.

This economic development argument for investing in the district is in keeping with the Homewood Community Partners Initiative, a collaborative effort with area stakeholders and civic leaders that the university launched two years ago to improve conditions within 10 neighborhoods near Homewood; included in its footprint are Charles North and Greenmount West, which make up much of Station North. Johns Hopkins has pledged $10 million—and the partnership has raised an additional $14 million—to support activities and projects that strengthen the 10 communities.

A more low-key example of Hopkins' involvement lies right across the street from the Parkway at the northwest corner of Charles Street and North Avenue. A burned-out building was pulled down here a few years ago, leaving an unsightly trash-strewn lot in a prominent location. Frank says that the university, as an "anchor institution," can impact the community in ways large and small. An example of the latter occurred last year when President Daniels and he arranged to have dinner with the lot's owner, a prominent property owner in the district, to discuss the university's increased interest in the area. "More specifically, we asked for him to lease the lot to Station North on a short-term basis so that they could use it for outdoor events," Frank says.

From this casual dinner came the Ynot Lot, an unsightly patch of rubble reborn as an open-air performance venue and impromptu park, with a small wooden stage and decorative murals. Its creation was also fueled by a $25,000 Spruce Up Grant from the Homewood Community Partners Initiative and set in motion last fall when Daniels and student volunteers cleaned and seeded the lot during the annual President's Day of Service. It's now used for a range of activities—from musical performances to yoga classes to badminton matches—and Station North is currently soliciting proposals from artists and performers for additional uses. While Stone says nothing would make him happier than to be kicked off the lot because the owner was going to build on it, for now an eyesore has become an artistic asset.

Such revitalizations have a ripple effect: As the neighborhood gets better looking and more bustling, public safety improves, and more and more business and cultural amenities set up shop, bolstering the momentum anew. There already appears to be a pent-up demand for more housing in the district. But beyond economic redevelopment, there are academic reasons that Hopkins planted its flag in Station North, and they go back to well before the hammers and saws got busy on North Avenue and the university hired a rock-star professor.

"Filmmaking is a team sport," says Patrick Wright, chair of MICA's Film and Video Department and director of its new MFA in Filmmaking program. "It requires all different kinds of key creative positions to make a great film, from sound folks to writers to cinematographers. I think this gives us the opportunity to bring all these kinds of students together."

There are two collaborative tracks here. One is intra-institutional, involving student filmmakers in the Krieger School's Homewood-based Program in Film and Media Studies and student composers and recording engineers from the Peabody Institute, who have been coming together in a class called Sound on Film for five years now (and which Dolby took over this fall). "From my perspective, this was all student-driven," says Hollis Robbins, chair of the Department of Humanities at Peabody. "It was the students who asked for a film sound class."

Meanwhile, inter-institutional collaboration between Hopkins and MICA film departments was bubbling away, too. In its 20 years of existence, the Hopkins Film and Media Studies Program has grown into one of the most popular and successful within the humanities, with its graduates working in all facets of the industry. But how to take it to the next level and raise its profile further?

"Two programs are just better than one," says Linda DeLibero, director of the Hopkins Film and Media Studies Program, of the decision dating back as far as 2005 to begin working with her counterparts over at MICA. "They have faculty that complement ours, and I think their students complement ours. Theirs are art students and dedicated filmmakers, while ours come from broader backgrounds. Some of our students don't know they are going to major in film until they get to Hopkins and discover the program."

The two schools' first collaborative film class, Narrative Production, was held in 2008. (DeLibero notes that former Arts and Sciences Dean Katherine Newman, who left Johns Hopkins last spring, strongly supported the collaborations and was later quite bullish on her school's involvement with Station North.)

The initial opportunity to physically unite these diverse student bodies came two years ago, when the Maryland Film Festival moved to acquire the boarded-up Parkway Theatre from the city. Both MICA and Hopkins agreed to move some film programming into the theater and the pair of adjacent row houses included with the property. As exciting as this prospect was, it quickly became apparent that there just wasn't enough room for all the facilities that a conjoined film program would require. Cutting up the ornate, if faded, main auditorium space was not an option.

As it turned out, Jubilee Baltimore's Centre Theatre—barely a block away—soon emerged as a viable alternative. The long-neglected building had been awarded $6 million in historic tax credits to help spur its restoration. While its conversion to offices 50-odd years ago destroyed its stylish 1930s auditorium, the rangy building offered plenty of rehab opportunities, even, quite fortuitously, a high-ceilinged soundstage area from days when it also housed a radio station.

Meanwhile, on the academic-funding front, in May 2013 the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Johns Hopkins a $1.2 million grant to spur collaboration between Peabody and the Krieger School—specifically, to engage jointly appointed "bridge" professors with a foot on each campus. A portion of these funds was earmarked for hiring a designated professor for the Sound on Film class. The position was advertised in a variety of academic outlets, and Thomas Dolby responded in January from his native England.

DeLibero and Scott Metcalfe, chair of Peabody's Recording Arts and Sciences Department and another big advocate of the collaborative approach, never imagined that the ad would attract such a notable industry figure. Robbins recalls DeLibero's excited words when she shared with her Dolby's emailed application: "Look at this! Can you believe it? This can really take off!"

Back in the Centre building construction zone, in the quietest corner to be found, Dolby picks up the tale of how he chose to come to teach in Baltimore. He and his American wife, actress Kathleen Beller, had previously lived for a long stretch in California and wanted to return to the States. Dolby, who had grown up amid academia as the son, grandson, and great-grandson of professors at Oxford and Cambridge, was looking for teaching opportunities on the East Coast. Some larger film and audio programs piqued his interest, but he selected Hopkins specifically because the new film/sound partnership and cutting-edge facility could take an already thriving program into bold, new waters. He'd also seen the arts help revive and enliven old port cities back home, such as Liverpool and Glasgow. Baltimore's prospects were enticing. "It's a blank canvas, really, and that's exciting to me," he says.

The newly minted professor, who has five albums of original music under his belt, says he has long made peace with his invariably being linked to the quirky, new wave–era song "She Blinded Me With Science," his top-five hit of 32 years ago.

"I've gotten used to it," Dolby says. "It's good to have a point of recognition, and, fortunately, the other stuff that I've done in my career closely follows on it." After his brush with pop stardom, he composed soundtracks for A-list directors like George Lucas and Barry Levinson and channeled his pioneering work with synthesizers into a Silicon Valley startup whose audio technology wound up in half the world's cellphones. And two years ago, he shot and edited his first film, the award-winning short documentary The Invisible Lighthouse about the decommissioning of a beloved beacon near his boyhood home on the South of England coast.

But in a way, his career arc has come full circle, from pop star to his present role as instructor of the pivotal duality of sight and sound on the screen. It was the playful video for "She Blinded Me With Science," wherein Dolby is seen visiting a home for deranged scientists, and its heavy rotation on then-fledgling MTV that really birthed the hit.

"I managed to persuade my record company to put up the money for me to make the video myself, and I showed them a story board, which they approved," Dolby says. "When they asked when they could hear the song, I said, 'Well, Monday,' and I went home and wrote it. I was pretty much writing a soundtrack for the storyboard when I wrote that song."

Now the professor whose talents took him from the pop charts to Hollywood and Silicon Valley has set his sights on midtown Baltimore and its work-in-progress arts district. It may be his biggest challenge yet.

"This is a very different opportunity," he says, looking out a glassless window at a streetscape in transition. "I think, given the broader implications for the city of Baltimore and the state, it's a much grander project than I've been involved with in the past. It's exciting."