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.”
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.
Bad timing may give South Kingshighway a long-term vacant lot instead of a cool, vital neighborhood business. The reuse potential of the Avalon is solid, and its prospects of National Register listing strong. Yet facing code violations and pressure from the city, the owner is choosing to destroy rather than repair. Of course, without the building, the property tax assessment drops — along with any leverage city officials have on Tsevis. Here is a case where citywide demolition review would prevent a small tragedy. Alderwoman Howard, for her part, won’t try to block demolition.
Meantime, the South Kingshighway Business District could be getting a big hole in the streetscape with no timeline for redevelopment. That seems a bigger detriment than a run-down theater whose brief run on the market at a decent price attracted substantial interest. Rehabbing the Avalon Theater will take time, money and vision — but the result will be worth the short term in which the building sits empty. If Tsevis can afford demolition, Tsveis can afford basic mothballing and removal of the marquee.
When the Avalon opened in 1937, the 647-seat movie theater was one of dozens of neighborhood movie theaters in the city. The Avalon’s design, by architects A.F. and Arthur Stauder, was refined if not lavish. The floral terra cotta panels set against a patterned, variegated brick wall and the distinctive stepped parapet link the building to the Art Deco movement in American design. For its era, the Avalon was a handsome building among many. Today, the city has lost many neighborhood movie theaters, especially those from the 1930s built in the Art deco style. The Avalon’s significance today is high, and as stewards of the city’s future, we should recognize and honor that fact.
The demolition application may sail through, or it may not. Perhaps a strong offer for the building will come in at the last minute. Perhaps city officials will realize that demolition is the worst option at the moment, especially from an economic development standpoint. Perhaps the owners will see that the value of the property will drop the second the site is cleared.
Having seen the Stauders’ hand-drawn rendering of those terra cotta panels, I know for a fact that wilder dreams have been had about the Avalon!