The battle over the fate of Robbinsdale's Terrace Theatre took a melodramatic turn Saturday as owners and developers rushed to start demolition and preservationists intervened with a last-minute stay.

In the morning, Robbinsdale city officials posted on Facebook that the demolition permit for the 65-year-old theater had been picked up late Friday and that a contractor was on the site Saturday morning. A picture of the theater's two Sputnik-style chandeliers resting on the sidewalk was also posted. According to a news release from the Friends of the Terrace preservation group, one of the chandeliers was dropped and broken by the demolition crew.

Early last week, Hennepin County Judge Michael Browne had denied the Friends group's request for a temporary restraining order. On Thursday, the group filed an appeal with the Minnesota Court of Appeals to try to head off demolition.

After getting a call from a member of the Friends group Saturday morning, attorney Erik Hansen asked Hennepin County Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson to grant a stay. "The contractor knew that the judge was literally on the theater grounds signing the order in the car, and they rushed over to punch a hole in the building with the excavator while she was signing it," Hansen said.

Demolition work on the building was halted. With the building off limits, the contractors then moved to tear up the asphalt parking lot.

Brad Nyberg, head of Friends of the Terrace, said he hopes the judge will require whoever ordered the demolition to repair the damage. "I'm disgusted that our city government is in bed with a property owner/developer who would take this kind of action," he said.

The Robbinsdale City Council has supported redevelopment plans, which have included clearing the site for a Hy-Vee grocery store. The supermarket chain put its plans on hold after the controversy started.

It would cost an estimated $2.4 million to repair mold and water damage, fix the roof and bring the midcentury modern building up to code. Such an amount makes it cost-prohibitive for the Terrace to reopen as a movie theater. Local theater owners say ticket receipts could not support the mortgage. So preservationists want the theater refashioned as a place for live theater and music.

St. Louis Park-based developer Inland Development Partners said that it had agreed to pay $5.2 million for the property, according to court documents.

City residents remain divided. Save the Terrace, another preservation group, compiled more than 2,000 signatures, but more than 1,300 of 1,600 Robbinsdale residents surveyed said they favored a Hy-Vee store.

Emotions still run strong

On Saturday, a few residents gathered to watch the goings-on at the site.

Joe Hrbacek, who lives down the street, brought his 8- and 3-year-old sons to watch the bulldozer rip through the parking lot. He said he'd been excited about plans to turn the abandoned building into a grocery store that he and his children could walk to.

"This thing has been getting worse every year," said Hrbacek of the site's deterioration. "It's dangerous. I understand they want to have restoration, but the money has never been there."

Tom and Kristi Gibson, members of the Friends preservationist group since July, were driving home from their daughter's house in Minneapolis when they decided to stop and see the Terrace one last time.

Kristi was raised in nearby Golden Valley during the 1960s, and her father would bring her and her siblings to the theater and give each a dime for snacks. When she was older, she would attend shows with fellow Robbinsdale High School classmates.

After graduation, Kristi and Tom went on dates there during their five-year courtship from 1970-75. They built their first home just three blocks away and later took their daughter to see "The Lion King" there.

"It was just ornate," Tom said. "It's a real shame."

When the theater reinvented itself as a three-screen venue, it lost its original charm, Kristi said. It closed to the public in 1999.

"I told Tom, 'It's over; we're not gonna save this building anymore,'‚ÄČ" Kristi said Saturday, holding back tears. "I think the building is over, but I don't think the fight is over."

john.ewoldt@startribune.com 612-673-7633

liz.sawyer@startribune.com 612-673-4648