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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Theatre gone; Facade saved! Sad...

The facades of two, fine downtown buildings — the former Capitol Theatre and the former Bowles Lunch building — have been spared. The London Free Press seems to see this as a win-win event for the city and the developer involved. Is it?

According to The London Free Press, ". . . these buildings were originally written off, considered too expensive to restore." Clearly the naysayers were wrong. As I recall some said the cost to restore the Capitol Theatre auditorium would be prohibitive.

The Free Press congratulates the developer and the City of London for saving "a key part of our history" and it was done in a truly imaginative manner; a key part of our heritage was demolished — the theatre! As Paul Berton, editor-in-chief of the Free Press, points out, ". . . the back end of the Capitol theatre is gone, but at least the facade is safe . . . "

Notice how the building is no longer the Capitol Theatre to Berton but just the Capitol. The theatre part, the end with the 1400 seats at its opening in 1920, is now just the back end, and a back end can be demolished. It would make a good parking lot. It was and it did.

(Maybe Berton would argue that he just made a typo in not capitalizing theatre in this second reference but that brings up a whole other question. If Berton doesn't have the time to read and check his columns for spelling and style, how much time does he have for the writing and for the fact checking, etc.

If we follow this line of thinking we may start to believe that our daily paper is a bit of a facade with the key parts of the place — the editorial staff — gutted. I understand both editorial and advertising have again suffered layoffs in just the past few days. Soon Berton can write, ". . . the back end of The London Free Press is gone, but at least the facade is safe . . . ")

The loss of the Capitol Theatre is a huge blow to London, and not just the downtown. Originally called the Allen Theatre, it was designed by the renown theatre architect C. Howard Crane. Crane was responsible for the design of some 250 theatres across North America. When you think of the Fox Theatre in Detroit, think of Crane. And the United Artist Theatres in Detroit or Los Angeles, take your pick, think of Crane again. (Architect Charles Howard Crane shown)

The Fox has been described as Hindu-Siamese-Byzantine or Far Eastern-Indian-Egyptian in design. The lavish theatre cost about $12 million to build in 1928. In continuous operation since it opened, it underwent an $8.1 million restoration in 1988. Detroit can be proud. London? I'm not so sure.

In 1988 $8.1 million U.S. was about $10 million Canadian. Using the Bank of Canada Inflation Calculator, I learned that $10 million in 1988 would be $15.9 million in today's dollars. So, Detroit restored the entire Fox Theatre for just four times what it cost London to sort of restore two small downtown buildings. (The theatre interior shown is the restored Fox Theatre in Detroit.)

According to The London Free Press, "the Bowles Lunch used to have a terracotta front, but 80% of the 400 tiles were damaged. The decision was made to change all of it to stone that was meticulously carved." Some descriptions of the Capitol Theatre mention its terracotta front and how the Bowles Lunch was made to match its neighbour. It may be more accurate to say the facades have been improved or repaired — not restored.

The screen-grab is from The London Free Press story on the repaired facades. The story says, "two side-by-side downtown London historic gems that came close to a date with the wrecker's ball have returned to their former glory." Oh? This is not the Fox Theatre restoration.

Berton tells us we are beginning to realize the potential in heritage buildings . . . "because they are unique and interesting . . ." Berton seems to have forgotten we are talking about facades here. There is nothing unique or interesting about the commercial space being swept by the construction worker.

Berton tells us that Londoners owe a debt of gratitude to the developer for showing his faith in these two structures. Faith in these two structures or a concern for the facades? The developer himself wrote in a letter to the city that some of the interior detailing in the old theatre was donated to the Park Theatre and some to the Aeolian Hall for use in renovation projects. (For that generosity we owe the developer a thank you.) Unfortunately this was done in preparation of the theatre's demolition which cleared the way for a long-planned parking lot.

According to the city, the developer's company acquired the Bowles Lunch building in August 2006 for $250,000 and the Capitol Theatre in June of 2006 for $890,000. It appears from the city records found online that the present owner made an inquiry "with respect to possible demolition of the Capitol Theatre building" in late 2005. This is before the present owner had even purchased the heritage theatre.

According to Cinema Treasures, "The Capitol was demolished in September 2006." Cinema Treasures does not count a saved facade as a saved theatre. The developer showed his original faith in the heritage theatre by ripping it down three months after his company gained control of the property.

Berton tells us, "If London is to thrive, these are the kinds of projects that will lead us into the future." Maybe. Maybe not.

As a London taxpayer I have to wonder if I can afford Berton's future. When the City was considering working with the developer and single sourcing an office lease commitment for 10 years the following listed concerns were potential disadvantages:
  • sole sourcing to a single developer in a non competitive process
  • sole sourcing not in keeping with past practices recognizing the requested length of the lease term of 10 years (City council later agreed to enter a 20-year lease . . . )
  • cost may be more expensive than a competitive request for proposal process where competitive bids are sought
  • sets a precedent for other similar requests from other downtown property owners funding of which is potentially at the burden of the general taxpayer. (That's you and me.)
Berton may not think much of "gargantuan movie theatres" that are neither unique nor memorable, the kind being built outside the downtown, but they do have some cool features — like a screen and seats.
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You will notice that the developer's name has not been used in this post. The developer is not a bad person; the developer is a developer. He runs a profitable business and not a charity. And make no mistake, the facades were worth saving with the finished appearance actually quite good.

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