Demolition Southampton Theaters

Without Review, Avalon Theater Demolition Underway

by Michael R. Allen

One day after my call for an imaginative path away from demolition of the Avalon Theater, wreckers started destroying the south city landmark. This morning, after considering it since December 22, the Building Division approved the demolition permit. Down came theater walls and steel trusses, headed up to North Broadway scrap yards.

If the Avalon had been protected under the city’s preservation ordinance, the demolition permit would have required the additional approval of the city’s Cultural Resources Office. Failure to get that approval would have caused a denial of the application.

Unfortunately, the 14th Ward is not in preservation review, and the Avalon had no local or national landmark status that would have led to review under the preservation ordinance. Yet the Avalon was eligible for National Register of Historic Places listing, on its own or as a contributing resource to larger districts.

South St. Louis Southampton Theaters

Coming Soon: The Future of the Avalon Theater

by Michael R. Allen

Is the Avalon Theater poised to be revitalized as a two-screen neighborhood cinema, a concert venue or a cafe with three-seasons dining in a re-purposed auditorium? Unless the owners drop a pending application for demolition, the answer is “we will never find out.”

Avalon rendering by Jesiey Mead.

On December 22, owner Greg Tsevis applied for a demolition permit for the shuttered Art Deco movie house. So far, the Building Division has not approved the application (#495332). Yet there is nothing standing in the way of approval — the Avalon lacks any protection from demolition under the city’s preservation ordinance. The Avalon Theater is not a City Landmark, is not listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is not located in one of the 20 city wards that have preservation review. The 14th Ward, where the Avalon is located, is one of only two south side wards without demolition review. (Alderman Stephen Gregali kept the 14th Ward out of preservation review and his successor, Carol Howard, has not placed the ward under review.)

Demolition seems a hasty move given that the Avalon has only been listed on the market since August at $250,000, after having sat for years with an unrealistic asking price of over $900,000. Since the price dropped to a reasonable amount, several parties have tried to assemble rehabilitation plans for the Avalon. Yet all would-be buyers need historic tax credits to make the costs of rehabilitation work, and the building needs to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places first. The process of listing can take up to six months. No one will close on purchase without securing rehabilitation financing.

South St. Louis Southampton Theaters

Avalon Theater: Price Reduced

The Avalon as it appeared in August 2009.

The listing price for the Art Deco Avalon Theater at 4225 S. Kingshighway has dropped to $249,900. View the listing here.

Suffering from deterioration since closing in 1999, the 647-seat Avalon is one of the city’s few remaining neighborhood single-screen theaters and part of our early modern past. The Avalon was built in 1937 and designed by A.F. and Arthur Stauder, a prolific father-and-son firm that designed many modern churches in St. Louis (St. Gabriel the Archangel, St. Nicholas).

Abandonment LRA Midtown Theaters

Bright Days Ahead for the Sun Theater?

by Michael R. Allen

The front elevation of the Sun Theater. Photograph by Michaela Burwell-Taylor.

There seems to be some confusion as to the fate of the elegant, vacant Sun Theater at 3627 Grandel Square in midtown. The sumptuously-ornamented theater has been owned by the Land Reutilization Authority since 2009, when long-time owner Grand Center, Inc. conveyed the theater to the city. Before and after that transaction, news about the theater has ranged from an absurd plan to dismantle the front elevation and rebuild it on Grand Avenue adjacent to Powell Hall to a promising but unsuccessful effort by KDHX to convert the building to its studios. The Sun was on Landmarks Association’s 2007 Most Endangered Places list.

The western wall. Photograph by Michaela Burwell-Taylor.

Currently, according to Grand Center, Inc., the nearly-completed rehab of the Pythian Building to the east for the Grand Center Arts Academy will be followed by rehabilitation of the Sun Theater into the school’s auditorium and performance space. Yet after a storm in late February caused masonry damage to the western wall of the Sun, the LRA issued a request for proposals (RFP) to demolition contractors for demolishing the venerable theater. One demolition contractor reports that LRA would not allow interior access to prospective bidders.

Alton, Illinois Theaters

Alton Considers Landmark Designation for the Grand Theater

by Michael R. Allen

Earlier this week, the Alton Historical Commission heard testimony on an application to designate the Grand Theater (1920) at 230 Market Street as a city landmark. This application is controversial because the application is opposed by the building’s owner — and because the status would create public review of demolition. City landmark designation is always the highest form of building protection. Bill McKenzie, head of a citizens group that wants to find a new use for the theater, made the application. Owner Ed McPike opposes the designation and thinks the building is unworthy. Beyond structural problems he admits have developed during his ownership, McPike assets that the theater — refaced in the 1930s — is not architecturally distinguished. McPike purchased the Grand to rehabilitate it but has given up his efforts.

The Commission has a month to make a decision. From an Alton Telegraph story by Linda Weller, “Panel to decide if old Grand Theatre is landmark”:

City ordinance allows 30 days for commissioners to make a decision, which can be appealed to the City Council. Commission Chairman Doug Bader said he does not know when the commission will convene for the vote.

At stake is that anyone wanting to renovate, add on to or demolish a city landmark must submit the plans to the city’s Building and Zoning Department. The commission would review the plans and must recommend that Alton issue a certificate of compliance before work can begin.

Metro East Mid-Century Modern Neon Theaters

Traces of Route 66 on Chain of Rocks Road

by Michael R. Allen

One of the St. Louis sections of the historic Route 66 is the two-lane Chain of Rocks Road in Madison County, Illinois.  Between Highway 157 at the west and Highway 203 at the east, passing through Mitchell, the modest road has a surprising number of remaining signs and buildings from the Route 66 heyday.  Chain of Rocks Road was part of Route 66 from the start in 1926 until 1929, when the river crossing was shifted from the Chain of Rocks Bridge to the Municipal Free (later MacArthur) Bridge and then again from 1936 until 1955 when the crossing was moved to the new Veterans’ Memorial (later Martin Luther King) Bridg

Starting at the east and moving west, one of the first Route 66 era landmarks is this concrete block gas station on the north side of the road.  The black and white paint checkerboard marks the earliest section of a building that was later expanded.

One of most impressive signs on Chain of Rocks Road is the old Bel Air Drive In sign, which faces an uncertain future.  One of the large letters is already missing, but the sign’s bell still rings out with a swanky mid-century design.  One of the metro east’s largest, the Bel Air Drive In opened in 1953 and could accommodate 700 cars.  Mid-America Theatres built the Bel Air.  The drive-in was so successful that the owners added a second screen in 1979, but times changed rapidly before the theater’s closure in 1986.  Wreckers took down the theater buildings in 1991, and the site is now partly built out as an industrial park. The owner of the land has expressed interest in either retaining the sign on site or selling it, according to a 2007 Belleville News-Democrat article.  Originally, the sign had a channel silhouette on each bell and then incandescent bulbs spelling out the Bel Air name.

The Greenway Motel and the Apple Valley Motel remain in operation despite less traffic on the old Route 66. The Greenway sign is now bereft of its channel-letter neon tubing, but it is well-maintained and retains its historic two-tone paint scheme.

The Luna Cafe to the east pre-dates Route 66, and is located in a sprawling frame building from the 1920s. The sign went up later.  The martini glass takes the eye on a swirling journey along an arrow pointing at the cafe.  Time to pull over for refreshment!

South St. Louis Southampton Theaters

Change in Alderpersons Will Impact the Avalon Theater

by Michael R. Allen

The recent resignation of Alderman Stephen Gregali (D-14th) could have an impact on the future of the Avalon Theater at 4225 S. Kingshighway in Southampton. The languishing Art Deco neighborhood movie house, built in 1937 and designed by A.F. and Arthur Stauder, faces an uncertain fate. The owner is a defunct corporation, the Sopo Corporation, although for years Greg Tsevis — son of the deceased Sopo Corporation owners — asserted ownership rights. The last film screening at the Avalon was in 1999, and in subsequent years damage to the roof and terra cotta on the north parapet has occurred. Alderman Gregali and the city’s counselor’s office pushed forward a suit in 2009 that sought to name the City of St. Louis as successor trustee for the Sopo Corporation and give the city power to dispose of the property.  (The judge named an individual as successor.)

On April 20, 2010, Judge Robert Dierker, Jr. entered an order in the case that the parties were willing to settle for a quit-claim deed of the Avalon to the city. However, the deed was not filed by a July 12 deadline. Judge Dierker has set a hearing in the case for August 30th.

If the settlement can be reaches, or if the case results in the city’s being names successor trustee, the future of the Avalon rests with city government. And that means that Gregali’s successor, who will be elected this November in a special election, will have substantial power to determine the fate of one of our city’s few remaining Depression-era neighborhood movie houses.

Historic Preservation South St. Louis Southampton Theaters

Avalon Theater Now Sports For Sale Sign

by Michael R. Allen

The Avalon Theater at 4225 S. Kingshighway is sporting a for-sale sign for the first time since it closed in 1998. Why didn’t this sign go up years ago, before much of the deterioration started? Well, the City of St. Louis was not trying to gain trusteeship over the defunct Sopo Corporation that owns the Avalon. On May 11, the City Counselor’s Office filed suit against the corporation seeking to have the city appointed trustee to dissolve the corporation’s assets — namely, the Avalon Theater. The next hearing is scheduled for September 14 before Judge Robert Dierker, Jr.

For years, Greg Tsevis has acted as owner of the theater, and has told people that the historic neighborhood theater is for sale at prices ranging from $1 million to $2 million. The trouble is that Tsevis’ parents never appointed successor trustees to their corporation before passing away, meaning that Tsevis technically not the owner.

The listing price is familiar: $1 million. How valid would a sales contract with Sopo Corporation be? That’s a good question, but the high listing price almost certainly guarantees that question won’t be asked.

Architecture Historic Preservation South St. Louis Theaters

New Merry Widow Theater

by Michael R. Allen

Located at 1539 Chouteau Avenue, near the Truman Parkway, stands a somewhat-isolated relic of an urban commercial district that flourished on Chouteau in the LaSalle Park and Lafayette Square neighborhoods. The liveliness is hard to believe now, with the decrepit rear wall of St. Mary’s Infirmary looming behind it, the questionable premises of a grocery store next door, AmerenUE’s hulking campus to the west and the Truman Parkway walling vital Lafayette Square from this stretch. The building has been used for storage for decades, and is now owned by the utility giant across the street. Yet at the dawn of World War II, this neat little moderne building was the brand-new New Merry Widow Theatre, a neighborhood movie house replacing the old Merry Widow Theater one black east.

The theater was not lavish as local theaters were, but that barely mattered at a time when theater chains like Komm Theatres, which built and operated the New Merry Widow, gave even the smallest theater palatial terra cotta, winsome interior decoration and the right atmosphere for a dreamy night out. For a theater named after a motion picture itself (Von Stroheim’s 1925 Merry Widow, which preceded the original theater), style started with the name and worked itself into each detail.

The building permit for the New Merry Widow is dated November 12, 1941, with Stamm Construction Company listed as general contractor and a reported cost of $25,000. Now-obscure architect Jack Shawcross designed the building, making the most of a modest budget. Three portal windows dominate the front elevation like a mutated set of eyes, while four lines of dark brick rise at each side and another line defines the crown. Buff brick is punctuated by carefully-placed slightly-contrasting buff terra cotta. The city issued a second permit on December 23, 1941 for a $500 canopy and marquee; unfortunately, I have not located any photograph showing that feature. Overall, Shawcross manged to make a rather economical building as striking and dashing as anything Cedric Gibbons could concoct — not an uncommon feat in St. Louis.

Inside, a terrazzo-floored lobby led to the 920-seat auditorium, where chandeliers and draped walls added elegance. The theater opened in March 1942, and quickly became one of the mainstays of night life for residents of the city’s first public housing project, the Clinton-Peabody Homes located across Chouteau that also opened in 1942. However, the New Merry Widow’s life span was short. After a name change that dropped the “New” from the name in 1951, the theater was open for only five more years before closing. The new life of the building certainly would have none of the glamour of Hollywood.

Occupancy permits from 1958 show that the Underwriters Salvage Corps used the building for storage of salvaged materials. In 1960, Tom & Sons Truck Repair converted the building into a repair shop. This alteration gave the building the garage door on its western wall and the infill of the original center theater entrance on Chouteau. In 1973, Affton Delivery Service took over the building and by the 1980s the New Merry Widow entered a long stretch of ownership by Hibdon Hardwoods, a wholesale lumber dealer. Although its original use is long gone, and much of the historic appearance eroded, the fine lines of the New Merry Widow are still evident. We’re lucky that the old theater still stands to delight the curious passer-by, and give some sense of the urban culture that once thrived on Chouteau.

Readers might note a formal resemblance between the Merry Widow and the Massac Theater in Metropolis, Illinois. (See “Massac Theater Crumbles in Metropolis, Illinois”, November 13, 2007.)

Illinois Metro East Southern Illinois Theaters

Edwardsville Plans to Restore The Wildey

by Michael R. Allen

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Alderman Rich Walker of Edwardsville, Illinois, has launched both a campaign to restore The Wildey theater and a public history project on the theater. The City of Edwardsville purchased the theater in 1999 and plans to raise an estimated $3 million for restoration work. It’s admirable to see a city government willing to invest in its cultural resources.