It’s the last empty building on a bustling block, out of place in the spot where it’s stood for nearly a century.
Uptown’s Suburban World Theatre opened on Hennepin Avenue the same year Warner Bros. released the first movie with sound. In the time since, the theater has stayed much the same, while the neighborhood around it has become more trendy, more crowded and more expensive.
Today, there’s an Apple Store next door. Across the street, H & M peddles fast fashion and CB2 offers sleek home furnishings for the luxury apartments sprouting nearby. Columbia and the North Face sell high-end outerwear a little farther down the block. A new Target store is planned for a spot around the corner.
Now, after sitting empty for years, the historic theater is expected to become a retail space, another lure for shoppers, albeit one with an ornate Baroque facade.
The transformation from theater to retail isn’t set in stone — plans for the space were made public four years ago, and additional details still haven’t emerged. But residents curious about the old building’s fate say they’re ready for it to be part of the neighborhood again.
“Everybody always wanted it to become something else once it closed down,” said Maude Lovelle, executive director of the Uptown Association. “I think it will complete the picture of that block, and I think it might even complete the picture of the inner circle of Uptown.”
The area has undergone significant changes in the past decade. Big-name retailers have filled storefronts, and the 30-year-old Calhoun Square shopping center has gotten a face-lift. There are new bars and restaurants catering to the younger, dance-all-night set. And there’s the constant thrum of new construction as the demand for rental housing continues to grow.
Meanwhile, Suburban World has been closed for more than five years, in part because a 1991 local historic designation has made it tough to find a tenant.
“An important part of finding the right tenant, which is part of the struggle, is having somebody that’s going to appreciate and be willing to embrace the character of the auditorium,” said Sheldon Berg, an architect whose firm has been working on theater renovations off-and-on for a few years.
Originally called the Granada Theater for its Spanish architectural style, Suburban World was built in 1927 and was the first neighborhood theater to show movies with sound. It’s home to the city’s last “atmospheric auditorium,” which replicates an open-air space with artificial trees, a faded blue ceiling and projections of clouds and stars.
The right tenant may have finally arrived. But the building owner, a Florida firm that paid $750,000 for the theater in 2014, declined to provide details while negotiations are ongoing.
Passersby strolling down Hennepin Avenue will find few clues. The theater’s entrance is covered in plywood up to the marquee, which instead of movie titles and showtimes says only “For lease.” On one side, the “A” in “lease” is missing.
Inside, historic features are still intact but newer modifications have been removed. Most recently, the space functioned as a dinner theater.
There are two other movie theaters within walking distance, including the century-old Uptown Theatre on the corner of Hennepin and Lagoon avenues.
Much of what now defines this slice of Uptown — from luxury apartments to glossy retail — is new.
When Denny Magers opened Magers & Quinn in 1994, the block was filled with other small, local businesses and Suburban World was still showing movies.
Over time, many of the small businesses have disappeared. The busy, congested stretch of Hennepin Avenue is a tough spot for retailers, Magers said, and it could get even tougher — a road reconstruction project planned for 2018 could make already scarce street parking even scarcer, he said.
Tricia Markle, who lives a few blocks from Calhoun Square, said locals wondered what was going on with Suburban World when it closed, but it’s fallen off the radar as years have passed.
“There hasn’t been a lot of talk about it, but I’m sure now that something might be happening, there certainly will be again,” she said.
Residents like having an array of businesses in the area, she said, but there’s a concern that small players could be priced out as more big retailers come in.
“It seems to be the trend that we’re going toward these big chains and we’re going to lose some of the uniqueness of Uptown,” Markle said. “I don’t know that we’re there yet, but I feel like that’s the direction we’re going.”