“All I have to do is say, ‘Hammerjacks’ and the crowd erupts,” he says. “Out of nowhere I’ll yell, ‘Hammerjacks!’ and the crowd goes, ‘YEAH!’”
It’s been 20 years since the storied hard rock venue was torn down, yet just the mention of its name is enough to make a generation of Baltimoreans light up with memories of late nights spent watching many of the best bands of the ’80s play in a brick-and-mortar nightclub near I-95.
Now there are plans to bring back Hammerjacks, this time to Russell Street, southwest of M&T Bank stadium and a few blocks from the Howard Street spot so many remember. Business partners Kevin Butler and Andy Hotchkiss want to rebuild Hammerjacks into what Butler calls an “entertainment destination”–a two-story bar/restaurant with a 2,500-capacity club, an outdoor beer garden for tailgating before Ravens and Orioles games, a smaller private room which could hold about 250 and even retail space.
If all goes to plan, it would open later this year or in early 2018 on Russell Street. The project could cost as much as $16 million and would be the city’s biggest club.
“This will be something that does not exist in Baltimore today,” Hotchkiss says. “We’re doing this because we love it and feel Baltimore deserves an amazing music venue. Baltimoreans should not have to travel all over the region to see their bands.”
The original Hammerjacks, a club which opened in 1977 on South Charles Street, was home base for Baltimore’s deep harbored love of big hair, cold beer and hard rock. After the club opened, Whiteman began to see a “group of crazy people” who would stand in the front row at KIX shows wearing shirts emblazoned with the Hammerjacks logo. Whiteman remembers the first time he went to check out the club.
“They played music ridiculously loud, they danced on the bars, they were pouring shot after shot,” he says. “They created this party like no other.”
Hammerjacks outgrew the smaller South Charles Street digs and relocated to Howard Street in 1982. When a concert hall was added soon after, Hammerjacks became the stuff of lore: Guns ’n’ Roses, Foreigner, Poison and the Ramones all played there, as did pop musicians like Cyndi Lauper and Eddie Money. The calendar for October 1988 advertises shows by Baltimore favorites KIX, Mannekin and Thee Katatonix, as well as Iggy Pop (with Jane’s Addiction opening the show).
Then there was the weekly “Laser Crazy Nite” on Saturdays as well as contests every Tuesday for “Best Buns in Baltimore,” “Naughty Negligee” and the like. Some nights the crowd was just as star studded as the stage. When more popular rock bands played the Baltimore Civic Center, they usually stopped by Hammerjacks after their shows to hang out, Whiteman says.
“So many bands played there and wanted to play there,” Whiteman says. “It held the prestige of the best rock ’n’ roll club on the east coast.”
The party ended in the spring of 1997, when the Maryland Stadium Authority tore down Hammerjacks and paved it over to make way for M&T Bank Stadium. Hammerjacks made a revival from 2000 to 2006 on Guilford Avenue, but the glory days were gone.
The name lived on, though—Butler, who was a regular at Hammerjacks in the late ’80s and early ’90s, bought the trademark in 2009 for $1,000. Since then he’s sold more than 15,000 T-shirts, bumper stickers, bandanas and other items with the iconic hammer-and-lightning bolt logo, he says.
Hotchkiss has a Hammerjacks T-shirt he’s worn around town and when traveling to other cities, and the response he’s gotten helped convince him to be part of the club’s revival.
“It’s amazing how many people will randomly stop you and talk to you about Hammerjacks,” Hotchkiss says. “It was shocking to see how much love there was for the brand.”
The new Hammerjacks has been more than five years in the making, and while progress seemed incremental at times, Butler and Hotchkiss cleared a major hurdle in mid-May when the city approved the club for an arena liquor license. That allows multiple bars in the same area to serve alcohol (Power Plant Live has the same arrangement.).
If Hammerjacks is to succeed, Butler and Hotchkiss say, it needs to be flexible. Similar to the 9:30 Club in D.C., the stage in Hammerjacks main concert hall will be able to expand and retract to make the room feel full even with a smaller crowd.
This swath of South Baltimore seems to have music in its DNA. In addition to being close to the old location, the site for the new Hammerjacks is the former home of Paradox, a haven for Baltimore Club music. And the neighborhood itself is showing signs of a revitalization—just down Ostend Street, developer Caves Valley Partners has been building Stadium Square, a mix of apartments, offices and retail space.
Can this iteration of an iconic rock club, finally recapture the old days? Butler and Hotchkiss are both third-generation Marylanders, and say that if anyone understands what today’s Baltimoreans want, it’s them.
“They always say, ‘Build it and they will come,’” Butler says. “Andy and I look at it as, ‘Build it right and they will come back.’”