It is under heated debate in many communities all over the country: Should we tear down this old (and possibly decrepit) theater to build new retail space, hotel property, condominiums, etc. – or do we restore and protect what could be a historic landmark? We took a sneak preview of the web and came across some Oscar-quality web sites that can help – and have helped – efforts to preserve historic theaters. Spotlight Shines on Examples of Successful Restoration Efforts. In the following cases we came across in our research, it was a group of concerned citizens that organized efforts to save and refurbish theaters that had been neglected and/or slated for demolition.

The Columbia Theatre Association for the Performing Arts is a non-profit association that now operates the Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts, owned by the City of Longview, Washington. The organization was founded in 1984 by a Longview resident who led the movement to save the theatre – built in 1925 – from being torn down. This group of concerned citizens was chartered to preserve, restore, and operate the theatre. Today, the Association has more than 400 subscribing members, led by a volunteer Board of Directors. According to the theatre’s web site, “the same community spirit that built the Columbia Theatre in 1924 has restored it to its former glory.” The site includes an invitation to lend financial support via membership to the Association through various levels of contributions. The group’s current Capital Campaign is also highlighted and promoted on the site.

An excellent February 9, 2001 Washington Business Journal article entitled, “Plans to Preserve Tivoli Upset Preservationists” details the plight of the Tivoli Theater in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. The theater, built in 1924, is now being slated as a cornerstone for a development project designed to stimulate a revitalization of the neighborhood. But there is disagreement among preservationists and project developers when it comes to restoration of the building’s interior. Don’t miss this article, which highlights both sides of this discussion, as well as the economic incentives of restoring this historic theater.

The State Theatre Preservation Group is a non-profit organization formed to promote the restoration of the State Theatre, located in Monterey, California. The group gets partial credit for the 1991 City Council decision to designate the theatre a historic structure, with a zoning class that protects its architectural features. The web site says that there is much more work to do, and invites the public to join its efforts to restore the theatre “for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Hardy Holtzman Pfeiffer Associates, LLP is a prominent architectural and design firm that lists the renovation of historic theaters among its specialties. Its web site describes its approach to the renovation of theaters, and contains an impressive list of completed projects (with links if available). And if you’re looking for justification for a theatre preservation project . . . HHPA says, “Our theater projects have served as catalysts for the rejuvenation of urban places, created tourist destinations in rural areas, contributed to the synergy of emerging cultural districts, nurtured the artistic maturity of students, drawn the public to university campuses, and enhanced fledgling arts organizations.” Organizations Support Theatre History The Theatre Historical Society is a national non-profit organization dedicated to recording and preserving “the architectural, cultural and social history of American theaters.” A visit to its web site is like striking gold for those setting out to research the topic of theatre preservation/restoration.

The association provides information on over 8,000 U.S. theaters, and encourages research in this “often-neglected” part of our cultural history. Its web site not only describes the organization and its activities, but offers some features free to all. Highlights include an online photo gallery, links to historic theater web sites, a listing of major articles from some the organization’s publications (with ordering information), and a guestbook to sign and/or read. This latter feature is a great way to interact with other historic theater enthusiasts.

With a membership comprised of preservation activists, urban planners, entertainment booking agents, and more, the League of Historic American Theatres is another non-profit association aimed at restoring historic theaters around the country.

Its web site describes the organization’s programs and services, which include regional workshops, research, and an annual tour and conference. Membership in the organization is required to gain access to an online association directory, access to league research and staff, and publications, including a quarterly newsletter (not published online). Those with an interest in historic preservation – particularly of theaters – will find membership categories (ranging from $225 to $575 annual dues) described online. Federal Agency Web Sites Can Help Save Local Brick-and-Mortar Sites

Not “The End” – Successful Theater Restoration Stories
While the following web sites do not explicitly lend support to theater preservation efforts, their stories are exemplary. Inspiring preservationists can learn from accounts of their respective histories, detailed on these web sites.
Theater City Built Renovated
5th Avenue Theatre Seattle, WA 1926 1980
Erie Civic Center Erie, PA 1931 1970s
Fox Theater Bakersfield, CA 1930 1994

While the following sites address historic preservation in general, many tips, principles, and leads make them an excellent starting point for those interested in preserving and/or restoring historic theaters.

  • The online “Classroom” offered by Heritage Preservation Services, of the National Park Service, gets an A+ in our book. A good starting point for research on the historic preservation of any building or structure, this primer-like guide starts with the basics.
  • The site speaks with enough simplicity for “the average person” yet covers enough breadth and depth for more seasoned analysts. Standards and Guidelines, a Rehabilitation Checklist, “Boiler Plate Yes’s” and “Boiler Plate No’s” are just some of the topics covered.
  • The National Register of Historic Places administered by the National Park Service – lists buildings (including theaters) and other properties that have been deemed worthy of preservation. According to its web site, designation as a historical landmark – and a listing in the National Register – helps to preserve historic properties through:
    • Recognition that a property is of significance to the Nation, the State, or the community.
    • Consideration in the planning for Federal or federally assisted projects.
    • Eligibility for Federal tax benefits.
    • Qualification for Federal assistance for historic preservation, when funds are available.
  • Cities or other municipalities that are discussing the possibility of restoring any type of historic building, theaters included, should also visit Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Programs site. This section of the National Park Service web site describes how tax incentives can benefit a community committed to preserving is historical buildings.