The Terrace Theatre in Robbinsdale has been an empty shell for more than a decade. The reason? Simple economics.
Even if it were remodeled inside and its roof repaired outside, the revenue it is likely to draw from just three screens is not enough to pay a mortgage and other costs, owners of other Twin Cities theaters say.
“The biggest problem is money,” said Tom Letness, owner of the refurbished Heights Theater in Columbia Heights. “Even if you could get the place up and running for $500,000, it would be difficult to make a go of it.”
In July, Hy-Vee Foods, the Iowa-based grocery chain that entered the Twin Cities market last year, proposed building a store on the site of the theater and an adjacent grocery. The theater has been closed since 1999 and the grocery since 2013.
Robbinsdale city officials approved the idea last month, but some activist groups and preservation-minded citizens want to save the 1950s-era building. After a petition to boycott the new grocery emerged, Hy-Vee on Aug. 22 said it would delay its plans to build the store.
Friends of the Terrace, one of two groups trying to save the theater, is seeking a court order to halt demolition, said attorney Erik Hansen, who represents the group.
David Leonhardt, board chairman of the Save the Terrace Group, said volunteers are considering a feasibility study, which could cost $10,000 to $15,000, to present alternative uses for the building to its owner, a New York investment firm called Blackstone Group, or a prospective future owner.
The Terrace’s fate sits in limbo until the next hearing with a judge on Sept. 13. The building cannot be demolished until the court rules on the temporary restraining order, Hansen said.
Thousands of single-screen, family-owned theaters have been demolished nationwide over recent decades as audiences migrated to multiplexes with better sound, larger screens, digital projection, and most recently, expanded food choices, bar service and reclining seats.
In the Twin Cities, the Cooper, OakStreet Cinema, Camden, Strand, Riviera, and Lyceum theaters have all met the wrecking ball. A few — such as the Riverview, Heights, Grandview and Highland — have survived into the modern cinema landscape. About a dozen single-screen theaters have been transformed into live performance spaces, cultural centers and churches.
Letness, who bought the Heights in 1998, knows about bringing a moribund theater back to life. Letness and his former partner restored the Beaux Arts style 1926 theater with a pipe organ, antique chandeliers, scarlet drapes, and red, orange and jade walls. They spent more than $200,000 refurbishing it, doing most of the work during the day while still showing movies at night.
Letness said he doesn’t think the Terrace will ever make it as a movie theater. But he said it has a fighting chance at economic viability if it can be remade into a destination event center or community space.
“If the Terrace can be a place that’s worth traveling to, even for people who don’t live in the immediate area, that’s important,” he said. “I get a lot of support not only from the Columbia Heights community, but also Plymouth, Minnetonka, all over. The building and the pipe organ have made [the Heights Theater] a destination.”
Mike Muller, who recently sold his chain of more than 100 screens in the suburban Twin Cities, said the Robbinsdale theater was not a highly trafficked area for years before it closed. “It will never become a theater unless the community makes it so,” he said.
Before it closed in 1999, the Terrace owners tried a number of things to make it viable. The balcony was divided into two more screens making it a three-screen theater. Its owner at that time vacillated between showing first-run and second-run movies.
Letness thinks the preservationists need to have a viable plan quickly. “It’s one thing to want to save it, but you have to have a plan,” he said.
He noted that many people wanted to save the Cooper Theater in St. Louis Park — a distinctive cinerama building built in the early 1960s and torn down in the early 1990s — but no one came forward with an outline for doing so.
Even with a plan, fixing up the Terrace won’t be easy. The theater has been closed for 17 years and has not been kept weather-tight, said Kent Carlson of Inland Development Partners in St. Louis Park. “There is graffiti on the walls and a lot of the ceiling has fallen on the floor,” he said.
Loren Williams, owner of the Riverview Theatre in Minneapolis, has a soft spot for the Terrace. Both the Riverview and the Terrace are midcentury modern pieces built by architects Liebenberg and Kaplan. “The Terrace is about one-and-a-half times larger than the Riverview,” he said. “It had an enclosed cry room and smoking lounge, and a big lobby. It was built with great materials and a solid foundation.”
Leonhardt realizes that the Terrace can’t be just a movie theater anymore. “We need to find a niche, whether it’s for live music or live theater. We want it to be unique. There’s nothing else like the Terrace,” he said.