A building whose obituary was written in smoke and ash on the editorial page of the Cumberland Times-News will soon open its doors to new life as a downtown destination for all-things Frostburg State.
Gutted by the 2004 fire that destroyed the landmark bar Gandalf’s on its first floor, the Lyric Building was given up for dead in the days and weeks that followed. A hollow shell and fragile façade survived the flames, but when bricks began falling on the sidewalk a few days after the blaze, the Times-News editorialized of the Lyric in the past tense.
I know because I wrote the editorial, and at the time fully realized that the phrasing of the piece essentially pronounced the building dead. It was a conscious decision, and to my mind, a safe call. The bulldozer was warming up to bring it all down in the name of public safety, white-striped asphalt patch where once brick and wood entwined, a Main Street denizen of elegant lines and long memory.
It’s not that that the 128-year-old Lyric came back to life, rather, that it did not die. Barely. Perhaps inspired by the “1876” emblazoned on its framed, uppermost promontory, the building survived.
The sidewalk was blocked off, but no more bricks fell. In a demonstration of civic spirit, the owner gave the building to the city council, no strings attached. To their credit, the city council shouldered the sizeable burden of determining what came next.
In short order, the council determined to save the Lyric. The first step was securing a $287,000 grant to demolish the damaged interior, remove the debris, repair the roof and stabilize the façade.
Which bought the city time.
When the crews had finished, though, the Lyric was more frame than building. “You walked in on the first floor, and you could see all the way up to the roof,” said Frostburg City Administrator John Kirby.
As to the question of the Lyric’s future, “There were all kinds of ideas proposed,” Kirby said.
Reality inevitably got in the way of most.
Into the Lyric void stepped a widely admired force for redevelopment from the city of Cumberland, the late and beloved Sue Cerutti, who had worked with her fellow Co-Downtown Manager Ed Mullaney to revitalize the Queen City’s downtown.
Cerutti introduced Frostburg officials to Michael Joy, a Washington, D.C.-based developer who had restored the Zembower Hardware Store on Liberty Street, developing upscale apartments on the upper floors.
“He saw the same possibilities in the Lyric,” Kirby said.
Joy bought the Lyric in June, 2007.
After an almost $2 million private investment and four-year effort, the Lyric this month emerged from plywood chrysalis to reveal sparkling new form as the downtown branch of the Frostburg State University Book Store. Opening soon.
Reached at his D.C. office, a polite, deferential Michael Joy said his investment in Frostburg is grounded in a belief that the city is ascendant. And that there’s not enough extra-fine living space for such a cool, breezy town.
The apartments occupy the second and third floors; seven units below, and above, four Mountain City penthouses, as it were.
“It’s a great town, with a very nice university there,” Joy said. “I think it has great potential. I also sensed a lack of upper-end housing. That’s what I’m trying to gear it to.”
Joy displays little affection for the role thrust upon him, that of fire-gutted rehabilitation.
He was almost finished rehabbing Zembower, when flames nearly destroyed the building, forcing him back to square one and beyond. But he brought it back. Asked if he is developing a specialty, Joy did not hesitate to reply: “I hope not.”
Zembower was about half the size of the Lyric rehab.
“Essentially, he constructed a building inside a building,” Kirby said.
Despite a host of setbacks and challenges inevitably attendant to such a project, Joy sees light at the end of the tunnel as completion dates rapidly approach.
The FSU space is already shelved and stocked, drawing pedestrian look-sees through the windows, and tugs of a still-locked door. Opening date remains a mystery even to the principals, but it is imminent.
Beyond tall windows looking down on the heart of Main, the upper apartments are 90 percent done, the second-floor spaces, about 70 percent.
A one-third square of ground-floor retail remains shuddered-still behind plywood, wherein resides the happy ghost of Gandalf’s, spirit of a space rich in karma. It as well will be marketed soon.
In FSU’s two-thirds, the Lyric will be a downtown branch of the FSU book store, selling, not books, but university paraphernalia. “All that kind of stuff you normally can buy on Main Street in a college town, but can’t in Frostburg,” Kirby said.
FSU spokesperson Liz Metcalf said the university’s presence will offer a destination for Scenic Railroad passengers, who brave Depot Hill to wander the downtown, as well as local folks looking to boost their Bobcat visibility.
More significantly, Metcalf said, the downtown store demonstrates and solidifies the school’s commitment to the community.
“We felt that FSU needed a stronger presence in downtown Frostburg,” she said. “We wanted to emphasize our relationship with the community, and strengthen that.”
In addition to the retail space, the university is also relocating its Development and Alumni offices to the Lyric. As in downtown Cumberland, with its vibrant mix of office and restaurant, more downtown employees means more downtown business.
FSU also leases the old Lyric Theatre space at the rear of the building, which largely escaped the blaze. One-time host of troubadours, Arian Bands and silent movies, the Lyric will provide a downtown stage for university performances, and a venue for university and community gatherings.
Metcalf noted that FSU’s presence in the Lyric also reinforces the university’s commitment to the city’s nascent Arts & Entertainment District. “We want to further build the links between Frostburg State and downtown,” Metcalf said.
City officials noted that the FSU retail operation was deliberately designed not to compete with downtown merchants, namely Fred and his peerless Main Street Books, an institution all its own in the Mountain City.
In addition, the store will limit its fare to FSU-only products, so as not to compete with the high-school clientele that flocks to JR’s for first-rate screen printing, just across Main Street.
Also not on the FSU menu, so to speak, is pizza, beer, Greek cuisine, fine-diner fare, menswear, jewelry, ladies apparel, chiropractic manipulation, home-grown art, architectural services, weight-lifting, indie-movies, real estate brokerage, Subway sandwiches, Chinese takeout, bike repair and tattoos.
For that, ya just gotta turn left or right, just outside the downtown Frostburg FSU bookstore …