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h o u s t o n When the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance (GHPA) added two Art Deco theaters to its “most endangered” list in July, there was an unprecedented outcry to save the buildings from being razed. The response has been unique for Houston, where land value is king and buildings, the bearers of history and identity-of-place, are expendable. Within 10 days, more than 20,000 people had signed an online petition in support of GHPA’s actions to preserve the theaters. The threatened gems are Alabama Theater on Shepherd and the River Oaks Theater on nearby West Gray, as well as much of the adjacent River Oaks Shopping Center. All the properties are owned by Weingarten Realty Investors. An article published July 22 in the Houston Chronicle by staff writer Lisa Gray brought the news to a wider audience, and was quickly followed by coverage on local television and radio stations. Bloggers soon were expounding on numerous Web sites. The Chronicle ran several more articles, columns, and letters to the editor updating readers on the public furor. Demolition opponents went before the City Council to raise interest in strengthening the city’s virtually non-existent preservation ordinances. Tenants of the River Oaks Shopping Center told the GHPA and the Chronicle that Weingarten leasing agents had informed them that demolition of the center would begin later this year with the western sections of the five-block-
The River Oaks Theater, built in the late 1930s as part of the River Oaks Center, is Houston’s oldest operating movie theater. It’s interior still recalls a by-gone era.
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Photos by gerald moorhead, fAIA
Houstonians Rally to Preserve Theaters
Designed by Dallas architect W. Scott Dunne and built in 1939, the Alabama Theater was converted in 1989 for use as a Bookstop. Tenants were notified this summer that the owner was considering demolishing the shopping center.
long complex, proceeding to the theater building by 2008. Tenants were told that the northeast corner of Shepherd and Westheimer would include a site for a new restaurant and a multistory structure for a Barnes & Noble (current occupant of the Alabama Theater further south on Shepherd; see below) with a parking garage behind. A residential high-rise is projected for the theater site. Weingarten’s scheme, in drawings seen by the Chronicle, are by the Houston firm Hermes Architects, the designers of the Venetian-themed Portofino Shopping Center on Interstate 45 near The Woodlands. Built in the late 1930s, the River Oaks Center was developed by Hugh Potter, president of the River Oaks Corporation, to complement the elite enclave begun a decade earlier. Designed by Stayton Nunn-Milton McGinty with Oliver C. Winston as consulting architect, the center forms a visual axis between downtown and the River Oaks neighborhood. The curved arms of the western end formed an auto plaza – since obscured by pad sites and landscaping – at the gates to River Oaks. The lines of Washingtonia palms installed in 1979 (by S.I. Morris Associates) accentuate this axis. River Oaks is the second oldest shopping center in the U.S. after Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo. Weingarten bought the center in 1971. River Oaks Theater, managed by Landmark Theaters, is Houston’s oldest operating movie house. Low-relief goddesses, two stories tall, flank the movie screen and the broad sweep of plush seats recall a by-gone era of movie-going elegance.
The Alabama Theater, built in 1939, has been a Bookstop store since 1989, and was acquired by Barnes & Noble about 1998. The thoughtful adaptive use retains the colorful, molded plaster low-relief sculptures on the interior. If the bookstore is relocated to River Oaks, the Alabama shopping center (relatively small but sited on choice property) possibly could not resist redevelopment pressures, hence its endangered listing by the GHPA. At this writing, Weingar ten Realt y has declined to publicly announce its plans, but released the following statement to news media: “We have made a significant investment in developing, managing and maintaining this property to be an asset to our community. As a responsible public company with roots in, and a commitment to Houston, we will continue to manage this asset with great care, taking into account its history and future. We do not comment on market rumors and have no additional information or comments to provide at this time.” Despite the official statement, Weingarten’s leasing agents notified tenants in July that demolition was being considered. The strong and prompt public response to the potential loss of these landmarks is reassuring to advocates for the preservation of the city’s historic structures. The outcry may indicate that locals finally seem to be recognizing the impact of buildings and places on their quality of life. More than a sentimental preservationist issue, this may herald the beginnings of a deeper appreciation for the presence of history. G e r a l d
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