History of the Hollywood Part 2: Failed Development Efforts and Falling Plaster

Preservation Design Works has recently been working with a prospective developer interested in the Hollywood Theater*, located at 2815 Johnson St. NE in Minneapolis. Several attempts to redevelop the building have been made in the past 25 years; thus far all have been unsuccessful. To help learn where things have gone wrong in the past, and to avoid problems encountered by previous redevelopment efforts, I have been researching both the history of the theater and of the redevelopment efforts. This post is the second of a multi-part series about the history of the Hollywood Theater and efforts to re-open its doors. My first post in this series covered the history of the theater from its grand opening to the closing of its doors in 1987.

Photographs of the Hollywood Theater's facade and auditorium taken in 1989. Source: Northeaster, April 5 and May 3, 1989.

Photographs of the Hollywood Theater's facade and auditorium taken in 1989. Source: Northeaster, April 5 and May 3, 1989.

In 1989, two years after the last film ran at the Hollywood Theater, the future existence of the building was debated. First Ward City Council Member Walter Dziedzic expressed clear opposition to re-opening or reusing the theater in a March 7, 1989 letter to The Audubon Neighborhood Improvement Association (ANIA, which later became the Audubon Neighborhood Association): “The building, as it stands, is a blighting influence on the area and may present a health and safety hazard if it continues to deteriorate. …  At this point, I do not see a more feasible alternative [than demolition].” Dziedzic expressed opposition to an adaptive re-use of the building, and pointed towards examples of adaptive re-use projects in Minneapolis that were going bankrupt, such as the St. Anthony Main retail development at the former Salsbury Mattress Factory.

The chair of the ANIA, Catherine Velsey, expressed a counterpoint to Dziedzic’s point of view in an April 5, 1989 article in the Northeaster: “We want an adaptive re-use [of the Hollywood Theater]. … It’s a wonderful example of the art deco style of the ‘30s, and we want the foyer and façade preserved.” In addition to being the chairperson of the ANIA, at the time of this debate Vesley taught art and architectural history at Metropolitan State University and served as Dziedzic’s appointee to the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC).

The April 5, 1989 Northeaster article also interviewed a potential investor who had expressed interest in renovating the Hollywood but ultimately gave up, apparently due to Dziedzic’s opposition. Daniel Jobin, who worked for Abbott Laboratories at the time, said that he and a partner were interested in purchasing the building. They brought a contractor through the building who estimated renovation would cost $200,000. Jobin stated “The foundation is solid but it needs a lot of work. … It would need some repairs to the roof and a sprinkler system. We were hoping the city would help us renovate it.” He said that when he spoke with Dziedzic, the council member indicated that he didn’t want to see the theater re-opened. As a result, Jobin and his partner abandoned the project: “We didn’t want to end up fighting City Hall.”

In the midst of the debate over what to do with the Hollywood Theater, preservationists and supporters of the Hollywood mobilized to help save it from demolition. Local resident Gerry Machowicz started a petition supporting the preservation of the theater that gathered 600 names. The Minneapolis HPC asked the City Council for a one-year moratorium on building permits or demolition of six neighborhood movie theaters, including the Hollywood, to provide a chance to study their historic significance. The moratorium won preliminary approval on April 18, 1989, at a Minneapolis Zoning and Planning Committee meeting, where the 600-name petition was also presented. Ten days later, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to  support  the one-year moratorium.  In a May 3, 1989 Northeaster article, Council Member Dziedzic expressed that although he voted in support of the moratorium, he would have preferred to see it not passed. He re-iterated his opinion that a more feasible plan was to tear the building down to clear the site for new development. In the same article, Dan Forsythe, an area real estate agent, said that several prospective buyers had looked at the property but were unable to finance its rehabilitation and reuse. Forsythe said proposals for the building included an indoor soccer arena, an entertainment center, a music and recording studio, as well as several prospective plans to reopen it as a movie theater.

By July, 1989, two parties strongly interested in purchasing the Hollywood Theater and redeveloping it had emerged, and were both seeking support from local residents. On July 17, approximately 40 people attended an ANIA meeting to hear presentations from the two prospective developers. Hollywood Group Four had plans to build fourteen apartments in the theater, and to lease commercial space in the lobbies to a retailer. Carroll Peterson, a real estate manager, was the principal and spokesperson for the group. Other members of Hollywood Group Four included Tom Gonyer, a construction manager, Brian Bennett, owner of the roofing supply company A.H. Bennett, and Stephen Taylor, owner of Fourth Avenue Hardware. The other prospective developer of the Hollywood that presented at the July 17, 1989 ANIA meeting was photographer Stu West, who wanted to “bring Hollywood to the Hollywood” by converting the building into a state-of-the-art film studio. Residents at the meeting expressed more support for West’s plans for a film studio. However, both residents and business owners expressed concern over the potential lack of adequate parking to support either the apartments or a movie studio. 

Excerpt from plans for the remodeling of the front facade prepared by Liebenberg & Kaplan in 1948. Source: Northwest Architectural Archives, Folder N36 JF.

In September 1989, Hollywood Group Four purchased the Hollywood Theater from Norwest Bank for a bargain - $6,500 cash, plus approximately $17,000 in back taxes and penalties. In the previous year, the property was listed at $65,000 by a local real estate company. An article in the Northeaster noted “it seems that there’s a zero missing from the sale price of the Hollywood.” Although Hollywood Group Four acquired the building for a good price, it faced several obstacles in the path to its goal of renovating it into apartments: incompatible zoning, inadequate parking, a generally negative neighborhood opinion among local residents and businesses about their intended use of the building, and the Minneapolis HPC’s one-year moratorium on building or demolition permits. Applicable Zoning at that time allowed for only nine apartment units at Hollywood’s site; ten or more would have required a conditional use permit, a public hearing, and approval from the Minneapolis City Council. Hollywood Group Four had also not yet determined an adequate solution for the twenty-one off-street parking spaces that were required to meet city codes for fourteen apartments. 

The HPC’s moratorium on building or demolition permits prevented the group from moving forward with its plans before the historic significance of the theater was determined; it also prevented necessary repairs, such as fixing the leaking roof. As a result, the condition of the Hollywood continued to deteriorate, largely from water damage resulting from a leaking roof. 

Over the following year in public hearings at the Minneapolis City Council and HPC, Hollywood Group Four outlined its plans, and local residents voiced opposition to them. Hollywood Group Four Partner Tom Gonyer explained their goal: “Our design is for an upscale apartment building that people will be proud to live in. We plan to keep the projection booth intact and put it in a glass case in the lobby. We’ve planned for several small commercial spaces, like a barber shop and video store; residents will come through the lobby, push a security buzzer and go up into their apartments. We’ll also put up old movie posters and advertisements up front and have the marquee lights going, so it’ll look just like the old Hollywood again.” 

At a February 21, 1990 public hearing for the Hollywood called by the Minneapolis HPC, planner and designer Beverly Wachsmuth stated “We would encourage the new owners to cooperate with residents in the area. They have clearly stated they don’t want apartments. But we don’t want to present an adversarial mood for the new owners, either. We don’t want them to lose their investment.” Catherine Vesley voiced a moderate view between local residents and Hollywood Group Four: “We don’t want the Hollywood so immersed in a neighborhood war that it continues to deteriorate. The bottom line is that we want the building to stay up and we want it restored.”

At the February 21 public hearing, the Minneapolis HPC voted to designate the exterior and “all interior public spaces” historic. Typically, only the exterior of buildings are designated as historic by the HPC. It was noted that the strength of the Art Deco/Streamline Moderne design of the Hollywood Theater was excellent and the building was in a better state of preservation than the Uptown or Suburban World (Granada) theaters. Pending approval from the Minneapolis City Council, this action effectively blocked plans for the apartment conversion because modification or subdivision of the auditorium would not be allowed. Hollywood Group Four was not happy with the HPC’s designation. At an August, 1990 Minneapolis City Council Zoning and Planning Committee meeting, Group Four spokesperson Carroll Peterson asked the commission to overrule the HPC’s designation: “We have always been comfortable with preserving the exterior and lobby areas, but if you designate the entire interior, you’ll leave us with nothing.” Beverly Wachsmuth reiterated that many neighborhood residents wanted the theater to remain an entertainment center:  “When the owners bought it, they already knew it was a business risk. … We don’t have an entertainment center in Northeast that we can walk to anymore.” 

Preservationists and interested neighborhoods debated the economic viability of various uses.  In an August 8, 1990 Northeaster article, Catherine Vesley disagreed with local neighbors who thought the Hollywood could be restored as a theater: “They’re on their own agenda. Some people have taken up the Hollywood as their private crusade. I’m a preservationist, but I’m also a realist, and I feel the HPC was wrong to designate the whole interior. The foyer and exterior would have been sufficient, because that would still permit adaptive reuse. … Nobody went to the theater when it was open. They tell me that that’s because it wasn’t well-maintained and clean and wonderful. To that, I say the city had other clean and wonderful things, like St. Anthony Main.” Walter Dziedzic agreed with Vesley, but also noted that he thought the plan for fourteen apartments was out of scale for the site.

In November, 1990, the Minneapolis City Council approved the Minneapolis HPC’s historic designation of the interior and exterior of the Hollywood Theater, with the exception of the theater’s marquee. From what I have found in my research on the building, it is clear that the replacement marquee was designed by Liebenberg and Kaplan, the architectural firm that originally designed the Hollywood, and it was installed circa 1948. The City Council appeared to make the decision to exclude the marquee from designation based on incorrect information. A November 29, 1990 Northeaster article states that councilmember Tony Scallon “vigorously objected” to the designation of the marquee, “which was added in 1962.” The article reported that city planner Fred Neet stated that after the marquee was excluded, the vote for designation was unanimous. Council member Dziedzic stated that he believed the city council’s vote meant that the Hollywood had few other options besides involving the city: “When you designate it, you’ve pretty much told the owners ‘we’ll buy it from you.’ … They obviously can’t put apartments in it anymore. The move said ‘you’ve got to keep it as a theater.’ I always was against designating a building that didn’t have a viable use, and I still feel that way. Now we [city officials] have to show a commitment by fixing the place up.”

In my upcoming post, I outline redevelopment efforts made following the historic designation of the Hollywood, as well as the acquisition of the building by the City of Minneapolis.

*Note regarding nomenclature: I have encountered “Hollywood Theater” and “Hollywood Theatre” used interchangeably in reference to the building. The original drawings and advertisements for the building called it the “Hollywood Theatre,” however the majority of the material I have found about the building called it the “Hollywood Theater.” For the sake of simplicity, and in accordance with the most conventional American English spelling, I will refer to the building as the “Hollywood Theater.”

Sources:

Gail Filmore, “Wrecking ball or register? Theater’s future debated,” Northeaster, April 5, 1989.

Gail Filmore, “Hollywood Theater gets one-year reprieve,” Northeaster, May 3, 1989.

Gail Filmore, “Group plans to buy Hollywood for apartments,” Northeaster, July 26, 1989.

Gail Filmore, “Hollywood sells at bargain-basement price, apartments planned,” Northeaster, September 6, 1989.

Gail Filmore, “City Council designates Hollywood Theater historic; future uses, city involvement are still uncertain,” Northeaster, November 28, 1990.

Dan Freeborn, “Hollywood Theater’s fate is in the hand of heritage commission,” Star Tribune, July 26, 1989.

Hollywood TheaterPVN Staff