Redevelopers see these grand old buildings as economic engines for neighborhoods.
Bits of history: Andrew Volna gave a tour of the Hollywood Theater in northeast Minneapolis. As the theater’s owner, he’s spearheading the effort to rehab the structure that holds some of his childhood memories. On the right, the passing of time is evidenced in photos of the lobby.
For more than a century, palatial theaters throughout the Twin Cities beckoned moviegoers with the whiff of buttered popcorn, velvet recline and blessed escape.
But with the advent of television, thousands of movie theaters went dark across the country, and many were torn down or awkwardly repurposed. Now, a handful of these once-forlorn odeums in Minnesota may become beacons of economic revitalization in several neighborhoods, though in vastly different ways.
A local businessman is buying the Hollywood Theater in northeast Minneapolis with plans to retool it into creative office space, while a Florida developer is seeking approvals from the city to turn Uptown’s Suburban World Theater into a retail store.
Across the river in St. Paul, the Frogtown Neighborhood Association is spearheading plans to renovate the former Victoria Theater into artistic space, and city officials are hoping to attract a younger crowd to downtown at the Palace Theater. In Duluth, veteran Minneapolis developer George Sherman is tackling the NorShor Theater, which will become the home of the Duluth Playhouse, as well as other performing arts and entertainment ensembles.
“These theaters were integral parts of their neighborhoods and can still be very effective economic drivers,” said Rick Fosbrink, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America.
In Minneapolis, for example, the renovation of the State, Orpheum and Pantages theaters have helped turn Hennepin Avenue into the city’s entertainment district.
“There are tons of stories all over the country, but there’s not enough hard data to indicate that if you invest this much money and do these things, you’ll get this return,” he said.
In short, there’s no foolproof blueprint for these ambitious projects. Most of the current projects locally are cobbling together funds from a patchwork of local, state, federal, private and nonprofit sources.
Evident, but dusty
Andrew Volna’s plan for the Hollywood Theater — turning the Kasota stone-encased Art Moderne structure into hip office space — is partly related to his successful rehab of the historic Rayvic gas station on E. Hennepin Avenue into headquarters for the tech/strategy firm Clockwork Active Media.
Volna grew up not far from the Hollywood, and recalls seeing one of the last movies screened there — “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
Much of the theater’s original features are still evident, although a bit dusty. The terrazzo tile floors and fountain in the lobby are largely intact, as well as the Heywood-Wakefield designed seating end caps and giant porthole-style windows. The projection room looks exactly as it did in the mid-’80s — it’s as though the projectionist went out for lunch and never returned.
Plans call for the lobby to be fully restored, while the seats in the interior will be removed to make way for office space on several levels. Once Volna secures a tenant, the space will be fully built out depending on their needs.
Volna says the project will cost between $1 million to $2 million, and he thinks it would be the perfect spot for a creative business looking for some snazzy space. “There’s a tremendous wow factor here,” he noted.
The theater, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is about a half block away from the Johnson Avenue commercial cluster in the city’s Audubon neighborhood. While the area isn’t in economic distress, Volna says an office presence (and its employees) could be the “missing link for the neighborhood” and its businesses.
Likewise, the Suburban World Theater (formerly the Granada Theater) in Uptown is already located in a popular area, but it has been a confounding and struggling vacancy on the Hennepin Avenue shopping strip.
Florida-based Elion Acquisitions purchased the landmark for $750,000 earlier this year, and plans to upgrade both the interior and exterior of the 87-year-old structure, according to city documents. The theater, whose Moorish architectural style is described as “Spanish Churrigueresque Revival,” is not in dire condition structurally, but changes are needed to adapt it for retail use.
The city report notes that the switch “could arguably be perceived that the structure loses some of its historical significance or integrity.” However, all of the changes suggested are reversible and the “primary character-defining features” will be maintained, it said.