St. Paul inspectors have cited the city’s two historic movie houses with fire code violations, saying they have to modernize their jury-rigged smoke detector system.
The inspections came five years after the city gave the Mann family more than $330,000 to renovate the Grandview and Highland theaters. The owners say the city never asked them to fix the smoke alarms and say they can’t afford what inspectors want them to do.
On Tuesday, the city’s legislative hearing officer, Marcia Moermond, was sympathetic. Moermond told members of the Mann family that city inspectors are willing to accept an alternative to the expensive overhaul the Manns thought they were required to make.
“I’m OK with holding this up,” she said. “I just want to get this right.”
Coming into Tuesday’s hearing, the Manns said they were worried they would be forced to sell the two theaters. The City Council had helped them avoid that fate in 2014 when they provided grants and forgivable loans to renovate the theaters, which were built in 1933 and 1939.
In April 2018, the Manns closed the Grandview Theatre to begin a long-awaited, publicly financed monthlong renovation. Work at the Highland Theatre began in August, after the Grandview renovation was complete and the summer blockbuster season was in the books. The idea was to replace seats, draperies and carpeting, but that wasn’t all that needed updating, Mann Theatres President Stephen Mann said.
“We started to get into the job and they peeled the drapes and the insulation off the walls and you could see the daylight. The [concrete] block has been there since 1935 and it disintegrates,” he said. “A lot of our money was spent taking care of issues we didn’t anticipate. So we never got to do all the things we wanted to do.”
Such as installing new fire alarms.
“The biggest issue is putting in a new fire panel because of the wiring in our buildings. It’s so hard to get from point B to point A,” Mann said. “We have residential smoke detectors right now. That’s all we have. So if one goes off, that’s the only one that goes off.”
The issue had never been raised before. Mann said he had assumed that the smoke alarms were something, like the theaters’ lack of handicapped accessibility, that was “grandfathered” in.
He said he hopes a less expensive solution can be found.
“My whole idea was to come up with a system where if one goes off, they all go off,” he said. “I’m not against the strobes and horns and all that. But the big issue is the big cost of a new fire panel.”
Both Grandview, at 1830 Grand Av., and Highland, at 760 Cleveland Av., are two-screen theaters that hold 487 and 632 customers, respectively. They are the only two-screen houses Mann Theatres owns, Michael Mann said. Their other theaters are large multiplexes.
The theaters are survivors in a city that once boasted 100 cinemas. In 2004, the Manns undertook a $432,000 renovation project. The city kicked in a $213,000 forgivable loan and a $75,000 grant from the STAR program.
Ten years later, the city provided more renovation help, from the city’s sales-tax revitalization program for neighborhood capital-improvement projects. It will be forgiven along with interest if the theaters are still open in 2023.
The loan also would be forgiven if either of two additional conditions occur: The theaters receive historic designation, which likely would increase the cost of their upkeep, or a 500-seat first-run theater opens in St. Paul, which could cut into their business.
On Tuesday, Moermond suggested the family, its contractors and fire inspectors all meet to review what is in place and suggest acceptable alternatives. Then they will come back with a possible solution Feb. 4.
After the hearing, family members praised city officials for their willingness to keep Grandview and Highland going.
“The city has been extremely collaborative in this entire process. We all, including them, recognize what these theaters mean to the city, to the community,” Michael Mann said. “We’re hopeful that we can find a solution.”