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The reason I’m posting all the photos and details of the restored theater, and surrounding entertainment district, is to inspire individuals in other cities as to what can happen with threatened theater buildings. It illustrates that it’s not always a hopeless situation, and that cities can find ways to save and find new uses for these historic buildings.
The lesson here is that it all starts with individuals speaking up and demanding these architecturally-significant structures be saved and reused in modern life. This can be done by doing research into the history of the buildings; involving the local media; and getting other people to contact city officials, building owners, developers, and even local chapters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The Internet, email, and web sites have made this all easier to do. Local historic societies and foundations are often vital participants in such efforts as well.
City leaders, developers, and your neighbors need to be shown that old theaters are important to not only our heritage, but that new uses can be found. People need to be shown examples of how these beautiful old buildings have been be used to bring new life back to downtown business districts, and other retail districts.
These structures are valuable assets to an entire community whether they be reused as film theaters, live performance venues, nightclubs, live broadcast studios, retail stores, book and music stores, art galleries, community centers, meeting halls, ballrooms, or even churches.
No longer is the only alternative to tear theaters down. There are examples that can be cited of what can be done. The most important lesson for me has been the effect and power of a few concerned individuals. It can make a huge difference.
If they don’t know, they don’t care. In many cases, city leaders and developers just have no idea what these old theaters mean to local residents. Often I think, developers immediately assume the best use of the property is to tear it down and start over. They just don’t have the imagination to think otherwise. One effective argument—to use with any developer or property owner—is to educate them about how local, state, and federal historic preservation funding, tax-increment financing, and urban development funds can be used to offset the expense of restoring these buildings. Often these funding sources combined can pay for up to 50 percent of the cost of restoration and reuse. In some cases, another potential tool is selling the naming rights to the reopened facility, or renaming the facility after a charitable benefactor or popular local figure.
There’s hope if individuals are willing to step forward.
I think is important is to be proactive. First of all, these old theaters cannot be allowed to continue to deteriorate while waiting for something to be done. Hundreds of these buildings are slowly rotting all over this country. Many times it’s a deliberate act by the property owner in hopes the local municipality will condemn the building because of safety and health issues. There are some property owners that allow the perfectly good theater buildings to fall into ruin to justify tearing them down. The common refrain is that “it’s prohibitively expensive or economially unfeasable to save the building because of its condition,” or “it’s unsafe, or too far gone.”
On some occasions, the city itself contributes to the problem by not enforcing local building code violations. City inspectors might cite the building owner, but nothing is done to enforce the action. Or, the fines are so small that it’s cheaper to pay the fines than repairing or stabilizing the structure to meet code.
To be fair though, there are also as many owners who don’t have the money to stabilize or maintain the property adequately, or just don’t know what to do with the structure. Some owners can’t even afford to tear the structure down, which might actually result in delaying demolition of some theaters.
Difficulties also arise when the property sits in economically depressed, or unsafe, areas. This makes it difficult or impossible for property owners to get financing to renovate the structure. In these cases, the property owner is hostage to condition of the adjacent neighborhood. Often the only solution is development of a wider community plan to stabilize and improve the entire area, which requires action of city leaders, developers, and other property owners.
People do purchase old theaters will good intentions, but things happen to prevent them from carrying out the plan. Market conditions and technology change, and a myriad of other obstacles arise.
Under some situations, a theater can really only be saved if city officials authorize and create an urban redevelopment zone around it, and assume possession of the theater through eminent domain, or property trades. This forces speculators and negligent property owners to turn over ownership of the property to another party to develop. Under this scenario, old theaters can be saved, renovated, and reused as part of a greater community development plan.
Some developers and city officials though are now understanding the marketing value and cache of historic properties that are restored or reused. They can be used as anchors, or trophy buildings, for greater redevelopment efforts in the neighborhoods around them. The architecture, unique history, or sense of place can be a vital selling device to encourage other parties to buy into a greater urban redevelopment plan.
Here is a live web cam view of the ongoing construction of the new entertainment district, named the Power & Light District, around the existing Mainstreet (Empire) Theater. The theater is the domed structure near the top of the image.
The view will not be as good at night, obviously, and also will be affected by weather. It may take a few seconds for the screen to appear on slower computers, or those using dial-up service.
The district will be anchored by the nearby, refurbished Midland and the restored Mainstreet (Empire) theaters; the new downtown arena —called Sprint Center, and National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame Museum; and the newly restored Hilton President Hotel.
Another new theater is also being constructed across the street from the existing Mainstreet (Empire) and Midland theaters that will be an additional performance venue for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre company. It is the building in the lower right center next to the parking garage. When viewing at night, it’s the building with the upturned floodlights on the sides of the structure.
I don’t know how long the web cam will be in operation, so at some point it will probably come down.
Here’s a bit of interesting theater history. The new KC Rep. performance space sits on the former site of the Globe Theater, which was demolished in 1932. According to an article in the Kansas City Star reporting the demolition, the Globe’s “greatest claim to histrionic distinction here [Kansas City] is that the talking movie. ..was introduced within the Globe walls.”
The theater introduced Vitaphone to Kansas City with the screening of “Don Juan,” starring John Barrymore, on June 11, 1927.
Here are links to renderings of how the theater will appear after the renovation is completed. The name will change back to the original name, the Mainstreet Theater.
These renderings show how the theater will fit into the surrounding entertainment district that is being constructed around it.
Here’s some links to some old photos of the theater (circa the 1930s) when it was operating.
I find it interesting that Weingarten Realty brags about the historic nature of River Oaks, and its significant architecture, on the shopping center’s Web site, and then proposes tearing part of it, and the theaters, down. After all, they openly state that it’s a historic landmark.
“Aside from being one of Houston’s premiere shopping, dining and entertainment experiences, River Oaks Shopping Center is also a historical landmark!
River Oaks Shopping Center is the oldest shopping center in Texas and the second oldest shopping center in the nation (Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri is the nation’s oldest).
Hugh Potter, the center’s designer, began building River Oaks Shopping Center in 1937.
River Oaks Shopping Center is one of Houston’s premier examples of Modern architectural design. When you visit, take notice of its pair of curved sections facing Shepherd Drive, followed by the long horizontal units on either side of West Gray. These features are representative of typical Modern design. In addition, many classic ‘30’s and '40’s motifs and materials- rounded corners, “porthole” windows and light fixtures, black glass and stucco- can also be seen among the center’s Modern design details."
I mean, jeez, talk about wanting to have it both ways.
I find it interesting that Weingarten Real Estate brags about the historic nature of River Oaks, and its significant architecture, on the shopping center’s Web site, and then proposes tearing part of it, and the theaters, down. After all, they openly state that it’s a historic landmark.
Yes, the Madrid does have an upper balcony, and it appears the original design did have additional seats along the sides.
Here are links to some photos taken after the renovation.
Here is the front facade and entrance:
The fountain in the lobby:
Stairs to the upper lobby:
The Wirthman Building and Isis Theater were originally constructed in 1918 as a two-story building. The additional stories were added later. It appears it was done sometime between 1918-27, since the additional stories appear in photos taken in 1927.
Here’s an update on the renovations of the Empire and Midland theaters. The big news is that the Empire will be renamed the Mainstreet Theatre. This was the theater’s original name when it opened in 1921.
Asbestos removal on the Empire Theater has been completed, so renovation of that structure can now begin.
The following is a recent article in the Kansas City Star.
(article text follows in case the link goes dead)
Empire to transform from eyesore to eye-catcher
The one-time vaudeville venue will be a modern movie house.
By KEVIN COLLISON
The Kansas City Star
July 15, 2006
For 20 years, the shuttered Empire Theater has rotted at the corner of 14th and Main streets, trees sprouting from its roof, a poignant symbol of downtown neglect.
On Friday, for the first time in a generation, Kansas City got a peek inside the former vaudeville palace where crowds once plopped 50 cents â€"a dime if you were a kidâ€"during the Roaring â€™20s to be entertained by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, and George Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen.
A sheet of the cheap metal siding installed to deter vandals had been peeled back to reveal the old address, 1402, etched on the red granite facade. Inside, the vast auditorium where a million people laughed in 1921, the first year it opened, was a dank tomb stripped to its concrete and brick foundation.
Only a few stretches of terrazzo floor and the once-grand staircase remained from the rich, original French Baroque interior. A guide likened it to exploring the wreckage of the Titanic.
It was not until recently that the building could even be entered without wearing a protective suit and using a respirator. Tons of asbestos and mold-covered debris had to be removed, an estimated 200 dump-truck loads, before it reached the point where new construction could begin.
â€œIt was quite a mess,â€ said Guy Gingrich, senior project manager for Kingston Environmental Services. â€œWe found the building on the inside had been completely falling apart and asbestos was everywhere.â€
Now, the theater is poised to be reborn as a six-screen, digital movie complex where patrons will be able to dine before enjoying their film with wine. It is also getting back its original name, the Mainstreet Theatre.
Kansas City-based AMC Entertainment and The Cordish Co. of Baltimore are reviving the theaterâ€™s role as a cornerstone of downtown entertainment. It is scheduled to reopen in early 2008, following a $25 million renovation.
â€œWeâ€™re going to celebrate the historic fabric and roots of the building â€¦Taking it back to its historic roots, making it a place where people return to for entertainment, theater and culture,â€ said Reed Cordish, a vice president at the firm.
The 90,000-square-foot theater has had a bumpy history and some close calls with the wrecking ball. The Mainstreet shut down in 1938 because of the Depression, briefly resumed business in 1941, then closed again until it reopened as the RKO Missouri in 1949. In 1960, AMC purchased the old theater and rechristened it the Empire. The auditorium, a breathtakingly lofty space, had a false ceiling built to create two theaters in 1966. But as downtown declined, it finally closed in 1985.
The theaterâ€™s succeeding ownership neglected it to the point that trees took root in the roof, growing more than 25 feet tall, and water ruined the interior with mold and decay. Pigeons relieved themselves on the dome sheathed in terra cotta scallops. Chunks of the ornate cornice cracked and fell on the roof.
While a landmark in the hearts of many, it did not have formal historic designation and protection from City Hall.
Even after Cordish announced in 2003 it would like to save the theater as part of its Power & Light District, there was one last push to have it demolished.
Developer Larry Bridges wanted to team with DST Realty to build a new headquarters for Kansas City Power & Light on the site. The plan called for saving the facade, but razing the core building. But the city said no.
Then last summer, Cordish announced it had a new partner, AMC Entertainment. The two companies formed a partnership to not only renovate the Empire but redevelop the Midland Theatre, too.
â€œAMC has been a longtime Kansas City business and very supportive of downtown. Our downtown headquarters are here,â€ said Frank Rash, senior vice president for strategic development. â€œ(AMC founder) Stan Durwood had a longtime vision for downtown, and this is a chance for us to be part of that.â€
In a way, the project already is under construction. Workers from Kingston Environmental began to remove tons of toxic debris from the interior last December and only finished in recent weeks.
Cordish has hired STK Architecture of San Jacinto, Calif., as executive architect. Helix Architecture & Design of Kansas City will assist with historic preservation design.
â€œOur philosophy is to restore as much as possible, celebrate it in our new design, and at the same time create the most state-of-the-art theater experience in the country,â€ Cordish said.
The plan calls for two larger auditoriums seating roughly 300 people in each, and four smaller screening rooms with 50 to 100 seats. The main entrance and ticket booth will be under the signature dome. Developers hope to remove floors to reveal the full three-level interior of the rotunda.
The restaurant will occupy the former lobby of the old theater. The idea is to create a place where people can watch movies and discuss them.
â€œWeâ€™re excited as a theater exhibitor to have a facility close to our offices where we can introduce and experiment with new technologies and new programming options,â€ Rash said.
All six auditoriums will use state-of-the-art digital projection equipment.
â€œItâ€™s still a novelty, but itâ€™s gaining a lot of momentum,â€ Rash said.
Developers expect to have the buildingâ€™s exterior completed as soon as possible so it complements the expected opening of the rest of the Power & Light District next summer.
Cordish and AMC also are moving ahead with the Midland renovation, but that project is far less involved. The preliminary plan calls for a restaurant to go into the front office space, and the theater interior to be tweaked to create a more clublike atmosphere for live music.
â€œOur emphasis now is on the Mainstreet,â€ Rash said. â€œThen weâ€™ll turn out attention to the development of the Midland property.â€
â€¢Opened: Oct 30, 1921 as a vaudeville palace with 3,000 seats, the largest in Kansas City until the Midland Theatre opened in 1927.
â€¢Designers: George Leslie Rapp and Cornelius Rapp of Chicago, designers of more than 400 theaters nationwide.
â€¢Cost: About $1.25 million.
â€¢Open: Early 2008 as a state-of-the-art, six-screen movie house with a restaurant/wine bar.
â€¢Developers: AMC Entertainment of Kansas City and The Cordish Co. of Baltimore.
â€¢Designers: STK Architecture of San Jacinto, Calif., and Helix Architecture & Design of Kansas City.
â€¢Cost: About $25 million.
I can’t see how the Madrid seated 1500 people in 1926 if the linked photo is a representation of its capacity. It doesn’t look like it had more than 700 seats in the theatre.
The marquee appears to be art deco. Would one say that the building is Colonial Revival?
Does this theater building still exist, or did Bruce Watkins freeway take it out?
According to Mary Bagley’s book, “The Front Row: Missouri’s Grand Theaters,” the Rockhill seated 762 in the theater and 50 in the balcony. She lists the date of construction as 1918.
The cost of restoration and re-use of the theater has been budgeted at $18 million.
The Folly Theater Web site (a link is provided above) also shows many current color photos of the interior of this theater.
Photos of the interior of the original Empire “Mainstreet” Theater can be found at:
The Empire Theater will not be demolished. AMC has announced plans to spend $18 million to restore the building and convert it into a 6-screen digital theater with around 1,100 seats, and an in-house restaurant and bar. Missouri’s governor has already approved funding through Missouri’s historic tax credit program to help pay for the restoration. The restored theater will be part of the larger Power & Light entertainment district currently under construction next to the new downtown arena, the Sprint Center, and expanded convention center.
The city has purchased the Empire Theater building, and it will be turned over to Midland-Empire Partners LLC for redevelopment. AMC and Power & Light District developer, the Cordish Co. of Baltimore, are joint participants in Midland-Empire Partners. The nearby historic Midland Theater, which was already owned and operated by AMC as a live performance theater, will also be revamped as a live performance theater with restaurant and bar and residential condos in the adjacent Midland Building tower.
Both historic theaters will serve as anchors to the new Power & Light District. Kansas City also retains the nearby Folly and Lyric theaters, and the Music Hall, as live downtown performance spaces. In addition, a new live performance space, the H&R Block Theater, will be constructed in that company’s new headquarters building in the Power & Light District. An outdoor amphitheater will be also constructed on an open-air plaza adjacent to the H&R Block tower.
The developer, Cordish Co., has committed publically to restoration of the theater.
Recent photos of the deteriorated interior of the Empire are found at this web link:
I’ve always been surprised that the Loew’s King hasn’t been converted into a live performance theatre. Yes, it probably would have difficulty competing with other venues in Manhattan, but it might be great for niche markets. NYC has a large Spanish-speaking immigrant population. It seems to me that there would be a market for live plays and musical performances done in Spanish for that specific population. I’m sure there are a lot of immigrants that would love to see performances in their native language, and a lot of Spanish-speaking talent from Latin countries that would benefit from having their work seen in NYC. It’s not like there is a lot of that content being exhibited on Broadway.
Yes, it’s sad that the city has landmarked the building, but left it to rot. However, it is up to the surrounding community to rally up and make it known that they want to retain the asset.
That’s a great photo of the Plaza Theater Charles. Do any interior remnants remain of the theater auditorium? Did Restoration Hardware renovate/destroy the auditorium space, or does it only occupy what was the old Spanish courtyard portion and lobby space?
I used to work in public affairs for one of NYC’s large medical centers. One of the most effective methods of blocking a project of this type, or seeking concessions, is through local neighborhood community boards on the Upper East Side. The groups are very organized and politically active, and have a lot of clout. Many of their members even serve on hospital community advisory boards.
I recall a plan by New York Hospital (back in the 1970s I believe) to build a very tall structure partially over FDR Drive. It would have towered over the neighborhood like a monolith. I believe it was a 40- or 50-story building, which would have been twice the size of the old hospital tower (which is 28 stories I think). Part of the structure would have been on New York Hospital’s existing property, so no neighborhood buildings were threatened.
The neighborhood community boards put a stop to it very quickly, and delayed construction of the new hospital building by almost 25 years. The building that was actually constructed in the mid-90s is 10-stories, and it does extend over FDR Drive as originally planned. However, the neighborhood wasn’t subjected to a looming toward completely over-scaled for the surrounding neighborhood.
It was a good thing this hospital project was delayed for so long. Changes in health care—away from inpatient to outpatient treatment—did away with the need for hospitals to have so many beds. Had that building been built, it would have struggled to fill its beds in today’s health care market. The building would have become a white elephant.
Memorial Sloan Kettering also wanted to tear down a church on the SE corner of First Avenue and 67th streets for a new medical research building. The church had for years provided low-cost on-campus accommodations for patients, and their family members, who were seeking treatment for cancer. I haven’t lived in NYC for three years, so I don’t know the outcome of that plan. Before I left NYC though, there was a campaign to stop demolition of the church.
However, one must realize that Memorial Sloan-Kettering has few options for physical growth. The medical center desperately needs to expand its services, and research space. The need for additional research space is important because it brings in needed federal and state money that subsidizes other hospital operations. It is a non-profit institution that doesn’t have a lot of cash laying around to buy other expensive property.
Often times the solution in this type of situation is a trade. It can be one parcel of land for another. Another solution is to allow the hospital a variance to build a narrower, yet taller, building on a part of the property that can be sacrificed if it will build around the theater.
I know the Beekman is just one part of the property. If I recall, there used to be a bank to the south of the Beekman that was converted into office space for the hospital. Isn’t there also a furniture store on the north side? Is the theater also attached to an apartment building? If MSKCC plans to tear the Beekman down, will it also tear down an attached apartment building?
The other solution is to allow MSKCC to tear down one of the older buildings on its campus and replace it with a much taller structure.
But providing MSKCC with an alternative to that site still doesn’t solve the problem of the low-density of the land on which the Beekman is just a part. Whatever happens, it seems to me that any owner of the property will have to be allowed to build higher than zoning allows on the non-theater part of the property to compensate it for saving the theater.
Wasn’t a much taller apartment building allowed to be constructed around and above the United Artists theater on Third Avenue on one of the 60s blocks?
I can no longer recall if the interior of the theater and the lobby are architecturally-significant in any way. If it’s fairly ordinary, it’s going to be harder to make a case for landmark status. Just because it is a big auditorium with wider seats isn’t going to make the case. One might be able to make a case for saving the unique marquee on the front of the building, and using it as the entrance to a new building. One still loses the theater in that case.
These neighborhood boards are listed on the City’s Web site if I recall. The hospitals fear these groups like the plague, and do anything possible to keep them happy.
I believe that the state has to also approve and issue a certificate of need for any hospital-related project.
In addition to Woody Allen, I know that Arthur Miller lives just a couple of blocks to the north on Second Avenue. I think Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard live nearly on Third Avenue as well.