Reusing an old movie theater is one of historic preservation’s toughest challenges. Often they are large downtown spaces that have been made obsolete by suburban multiplexes that can out-compete with free parking and lots of screens.
But every once in a while, they manage to survive, sometimes through re-use. The MacArthur Theater in the District’s Palisades neighborhood has lost a good deal of its romance, but at least the streetfront landmark survives, if only as a CVS drugstore.
I spent many hours in Brookline Massachusetts’ Coolidge Corner Theater, sureptitously unwrapping bagels and cream cheese while gorging myself on Frank Capra, Bette Davis, and Cary Grant. Even in this era of Netflix couch potatoes, that theater survives with membership and vigorous programming of children’s specials, indie films, and a fair dose of popular first run movies.
Silver Spring is lucky to have saved and restored the Silver Theater with the help of the American Film Institute. It is one of the best, and with the Fillmore coming in across the street and restaurants around the corner, downtown could become an entertainment hub.
Another Montgomery County historic theater with potential is the Flower Theater in the Long Branch community. There’s plenty of nostalgia for its past and challenges for its re-use.
Theater re-use is a real specialty and the League of Historic American Theaters offers advice about architecture, financing, rehab, and operations. Even a quick look at the site will give you a sense of the challenges, but also of the community benefits.