Inside a vacant bank building decorated with twinkle lights, a bartender poured cocktails over rectangles of ice in glasses. “I told them, ‘I’m putting long ice on the menu and no one can stop me,’” said Michael Cohn, sliding the beverage, a $12 lychee bellini, across the bar.
It was the preview for the Downtown Partnership’s Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar, which has transformed the lobby of a long-vacant but grand old bank building at 1 East Baltimore St. into an Instagram-friendly lounge.
The idea: to show people what this “beautiful and underutilized” space can be, said Claudia Jolin, who is vice president of economic development for the organization.
Built just three years after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, the three-story bank was previously home to First Union National Bank and later World Relief, an evangelical Christian humanitarian organization. But it has been empty since 2015. It’s far from the only such property; the city’s downtown office spaces have a nearly 20% vacancy rate, according to a report from Downtown Partnership, a quasi-city agency.
Jolin compared the pop-up to staging in real estate, helping prospective buyers envision an alternate future for this historic building.
Strands of pink cherry blossoms were draped from the walls, with paper lanterns and cherry blossom LED lamps illuminating the marble floors. By the entrance, a tunnel of faux flowers and lights practically demanded to be snapped and shared on social media. “I’ve been taking pictures of everything in here since I’ve been here,” said Adore Bailey, a security guard.
The adults-only pop-up — which opens Friday and will take place Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through April 15 — was the product of a five-week transformation spearheaded by Cohn, who owns No Land Beyond, a board game bar in Old Goucher where Jolin is a regular. He’s no stranger to bringing cool spaces to unlikely locations, having recently participated in the Memento mori art gallery pop-up inside a former funeral home at 108 West North Ave.
One reminder that this is a vacant building: On the way to the restroom, reached by a three-floor climb up a staircase, parts of the ceilings were peeling onto the floor.
Downtown Partnership secured a one-year lease on the space from owner Huron Associates, thanks to a $30,000 grant from Project Restore meant to bring new life to vacant buildings, Jolin said. Other costs of the pop-up are being covered by event sponsors including the Baltimore Convention Center.
Later this year, the bank will host the fall show of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, a local theater group for which Jolin is a board member. But other events could happen, too, depending on people’s interest.
The focal piece of the pop-up is a massive, papier mache-style replica cherry tree created by Baltimore Rock Opera Society volunteer Anna Platis, who spent seven weeks meticulously crafting the structure inside the building. “We just finished it last night,” she said Thursday, referring to herself and partner Daniel Lopez, who helped with the project.
While working there, Platis had to go downstairs at one point to turn the water on, passing long-out-of-use bank vaults on the way. “I think spooky stuff is fun, but my partner was scared,” she said.
As a finishing touch, the couple created their own Instagrammable moment: They painted their initials inside a heart on the tree.
Check out the Downtown Partnership’s Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar on March 31, April 1, 6, 7, 8, 13, 14 and 15 from 5 to 10 p.m.