The Arena Playhouse at 801 McCulloh Street has been occupied by the Arena Players, an African American theater troupe, since December 1961. Established in 1953 as an outgrowth of the “The Negro Little Theater”, the Arena Players spent a decade performing at varied locations including Coppin State University, the Druid Hill YMCA, the Great Hall Theater of St. Mary’s Church in Walbrook, and the Carl J. Murphy Auditorium at Morgan State University.
When the theater moved to McCulloh Street at the end of 1961 they took over a building with a long history. Originally known by the address of 406 Orchard Street, the three-story building was erected in the mid to late nineteenth century. By 1890, the building operated as a livery attached to the Hartman & Moore Carriage Factory near the northern end of a row of seventeen buildings between McCulloh Alley and Little Monument Street. Around 1892, Patrick Gaierty acquired the livery and continued to operate it as "University Stables" up until his death in August 1911. Shortly after Gaierty's death, St. Mary's Protestant Episcopal Church acquired the building and turned it into a church hall.
In 1918, during World War I, the church hall was converted into the War Camp Community Service Club for Colored Soldiers with a dance hall, food, bath facilities, and accommodations for two hundred sailors or soldiers. In the 1940s, the building hosted the St. Mary's Hall Nursery School and offered low-cost childcare for local Black families.
By the early 1950s, the city had extended McCulloh Street through the middle of the block leaving two short rows of houses and commercial buildings. The adjoining carriage factory had been turned into a factory for the Baltimore Chair Company. And, by 1960, the church hall had been turned into a 13,500-square-foot warehouse and S.J. Stackhouse & Son, Inc. advertised the building for lease (noting the building's "new hearing plant" and "very good condition").
The Arena Players moved in at the end of 1961 and, by November 14, 1969, managed to purchase the building in a deal financed solely by ticket sales. In 1974, Arena Players met with the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) to seek the group's assistance in planning the expansion of their 200-seat theater. NDC recruited Leon Bridges, a Black architect who had opened an office in Baltimore in 1970, and Bridges drafted a plan for the redevelopment of the building at an estimated cost of $755,000. Between August 1975 and October 1976, the group undertook a major renovation to add a new large theater to the building. The work was supported by a $50,000 mortgage from the Ideal Building and Loan Association, $120,000 in gifts from community groups and individuals, a $3,000 grant from the Maryland Arts Council, and a $321,000 federal grant administered by the city's Department of Housing and Community Development. The new 300-seat theater was commemorated on October 22, 1976 with a performance of Langston Hughes' Little Ham.
For many years, the Arena Playhouse was one of the only venues dedicated to showcasing the works of Black playwrights and performers. While Black performers now have more opportunities, the theater on McCulloh Street continues to be a treasured institution today.