Future Looks Hopeful for Kansas City’s Empire Theater
KANSAS CITY, MO — The Empire Theater has survived another round in an ongoing battle between developers, who control the property, and those interested in saving the historic theater. Only this time, it appears that the battle may be nearing its end.
Preservationists experienced a sigh of relief on Nov. 11. The Kansas City Star reported that a plan to construct a new headquarters for Kansas City Power & Light on the theater’s site had been rejected by city leaders. Developers sought the entire Empire Theater block to erect a new office tower for the utility company, which rents space just two blocks away.
From the Star article: “Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes said Wednesday that while city officials will continue to work to keep KCP&L downtown, the Empire Theater block will remain part of the Kansas City Live entertainment district and be redeveloped by the Cordish Co. of Baltimore. Cordish wants to reuse the old vaudeville and movie theater palace as a live music venue and lounge.”
“We want this to be a win for Cordish and a win for KCP&L as they consider downtown,” Barnes said. “The Empire block will stay with the Cordish plan, and we will work with KCP&L as they explore their options.”
The owner of the theater had threatened several times to demolish the building, and had even sought a demolition permit. A vigilant supporter of saving the theater noticed the request for demolition had been filed with the city, and contacted the local media. The request for a demolition permit was denied.
The Star reported: “While the city does not own the Empire Theater block, it is included in the broader South Loop redevelopment plan. That plan allows the city to obtain necessary property through condemnation.”
The city has the authority to take the Empire Theater through use of eminent domain.
The Star also reported: “Historic preservationists were pleased the old theater would remain part of the Kansas City Live plan. Although the Empire does not have official landmark status and the protection that provides, the 83-year-old theater is dear to the hearts of many preservationists. The building was recently included on a list of downtown structures the Kansas City chapter of the American Institute of Architects believes should be saved.”
“I’m absolutely dumbfounded somebody has gotten some common sense,” said Jane Flynn, a prominent local preservationist. “It’s most certainly an impressive building. I think its wonderful news.”
A redeveloped Empire Theater would be part of a large entertainment district and new downtown arena that are being contructed in the neighborhood. The Empire Theater will be surrounded on three sides by this district. Kansas City’s other venerable downtown theater, the Midland, sits just one block away on the same street. It is currently used as a performing arts venue.
The Empire is the only remaining theater in Kansas City that was designed by Rapp & Rapp. It opened in 1921 as the RKO Missouri. Its name changed to Main Street Theater in the 1930s. In 1949, the name was changed to RKO Orpheum. The name changed again to Cinerama in 1956. Then AMC bought it in the late 1950s and changed the name to Empire.
In the 60s, the Empire was split into two theaters: The Empire and the Royal. In 1980, it was converted into four theaters and called Empire 4 Theaters. It stopped screening films and closed in 1985.
The entire Kansas City Star article can be viewed at: http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/business/companies/10149232.htm