Friday, January 29, 2010
In America, our priorities are a bit messed up. Each of the three things in the title of this post are very important to our country’s future, for different reasons, yet their importance has yet to be fully appreciated. More importantly, all three are deeply interrelated. It is hard to have one without the others.
Why Transit Matters:
As China gains more and more of a share of the world’s automobiles, a larger and larger share of the world’s oil will go there as well. While America currently subsidizes gasoline at a price that makes it viable for nearly everyone in the country to drive everywhere, that will become impractical in the near future. Gas prices will go up. Even in the unlikely event that China’s auto share does not increase dramatically, America’s infrastructure is getting decrepit at such a rate that at some point in the near future, it will be necessary to make a major investment in it in order to keep the country running at close to our current standard of living. One of the most commonly proposed ways to fund such a large investment is an increase in the gas tax. Currently, America’s gas tax is 18.5 cents, and has been at that level since 1993. Simply due to inflation, it should increase, and will probably increase substantially. Suffice to say, one way or another, gas prices are probably going up. That will ultimately make it financially impossible for an increasing proportion of the population to own, service, and drive one or multiple cars, as they currently do. In addition, a larger proportion of the low-income population of America is moving to the suburbs, as cost of living in cities is increasing beyond their means. Thus, poverty is steady or declining in cities as it increases in suburbs. Mobility is already a problem for those of lower income and only becomes a bigger problem due to the mobility issues common in the suburbs.
The answer to all these problems is better public transit. America now has some of the worst public transit in the developed world, though it had some of the best early this past century. Rather than improve the systems to accommodate recent record growth, as well as anticipate future needs, America is currently cutting transit service across the board. For example, here in Chicago, the CTA is the second largest public transit system in the country. On February 7th, it will be cutting 14% of its service. Despite serving 1.6 million people per day, it is considered OK politically to let this occur. Even New York City, as transit-dependent a city as exists in America, with 10 million riders per day, is facing massive cuts.
For preservation, decreasing transit options has instant negative effects. Because most preservation and adaptive reuse projects occur in deeply urbanized and dense areas, these tend to be older areas that were built before the age of the car in America. The advantage of such areas is that they tend to be walkable and physically the kind of place that people will pay a lot of money to live in. However, these areas tend to be very dependent on transit. Without buses and trains (formerly streetcars, usually), these areas would need massive parking garages, which to be built would necessarily destroy the small scale sense of place and character that defines many of the areas that we preserve. Thus, the parking garages have not been built, and parking remains hard to find. And, for the most part, that is a good thing. In a few years when less people are driving and many hulking concrete parking garages stand empty, these areas will be glad they were not built. But transit needs to remain strong for these areas to work.
Both preservation and transit relate directly to sustainability, or being “green.” It is such a buzzword nowadays that people have little idea what it really means. Recycling is great, but if you carry your recycling to the dump in an SUV, that kind of negates the good effect. The same hypocrisy is evident in many aspects of the modern green movement. For example, tearing down a green building to build a new LEED-certified building is a joke. It will take that new building at least 30, perhaps more like 70, years to make back the amount of energy wasted by sending that old building to the landfill.
Both preservation and transit are intensely green. There is a saying in the preservation movement that says “the greenest building is the one that is already built.” There are few greener options than renovating an existing building. There are few more harmful options to the environment than sending an old building to the landfill. By demolishing and carting away an old building’s remains, not only is the energy saved that would be used to build the new building, but a massive amount of energy is saved that would be used in demolition and in either burning or recycling the waste.
Transit is “green” in several ways. Biking or walking are as green as they get. No energy is wasted. However, many people use trains and buses. There is a huge caveat to this. Despite common wisdom, transit is not necessarily, in the United States, greener than using a car. YET. The average ridership in a car is 1.6 passengers or so, the average ridership in a train car is about 22 passengers, and the average ridership in a bus is 9 passengers. At that ridership, the three modes have about the same energy-efficiency. However, given that trains and buses tend to be very full during rush hour, at least in Chicago. Thus, at that time of day, they are 5-6 times as energy efficient as a car. So, for your typical commuter, transit is much more green. At night, not necessarily, but to foster a society where people can be dependent on transit, those late night and half-full trains and buses are necessary. However, Australia, Europe, and Asia don’t have the same problem. The energy-efficiency of transit there is 2.5 to 4 times that of cars. Why? Because ridership is so high there that buses and trains don’t run half-empty like they do here. So, the answer in America is that transit will be green when it is more heavily used at all times of day – ie. When more people start depending on it. Another problem is that much more energy-efficient buses are available than are often used currently, but they are not yet widely used because of a lack of will to spend the money on them. Thus, transit is very much part of our green future, even though the statistics don’t show it yet.
This was a wide-ranging post. I suppose it came close to a rant, but I felt it was important to get my philosophy on urbanity out there, especially given the threat of deep transit cuts in two weeks. All these are topics central to the future of design, city planning, architecture, and preservation, so I will mention them from time to time in the future on this blog, hopefully in more digestible portions.
Monday, January 25, 2010
One type of culture gives way to another... It turns out that the particular era of cinema that Memphis's Plaza Theatre was an example of - those dating from 1930 to 1955 - are quite often adaptively reused as bookstores. A new Barnes & Noble bookstore is usually about 25,000 square feet, and the large, windowless open boxes that cinemas provide tend to allow conforming pretty closely to this footprint.
Varsity Theatre - Palo Alto, California
Built 1927, Closed 1994
This lavish art deco theatre included a mission style courtyard that was adapted as an outdoor circulation, sidewalk cafe, and retail space. The interior's two floors became a Barnes & Noble.
See this set by BWChicago on Flickr: Varsity Theatre
And this site by the Palo Alto History Project: Varsity Theatre
Alabama Theatre - Houston, Texas
Built 1939, Closed 1983
This beautiful Art Moderne theatre became a Bookstop in 1984. (The chain was later bought by Barnes & Noble.) However, it closed in September 2009 and is now awaiting redevelopment or possible demolition. Architect: Pettigrew & Worley
Set by mslnp on Flickr: Alabama Theatre
See this site by Cinema Houston: Alabama Theatre
Wikipedia - by Postoak
Fox Studio City Theatre - Studio City, California
Built 1939, Closed 1991
Currently occupied by a Bookstop, a chain which was bought by Barnes & Noble. Architect was Clifford A. Balch.
A couple of pictures by clearlight on Flickr: Fox Studio City Theatre and one by avilon_music.
Apparently it is also the location of Brenda and Dylan's first date on Beverly Hills, 90210 if you're into that sort of thing: click
CinemaTreasures page: click
Belle Meade Theatre - Nashville, Tennessee
Built 1940, closed 1991
Much like the Plaza Theatre in Memphis, the old single-screen theatre closed in the early 1990s. Bookstar quickly moved in and reused it. However, that store closed in the early 2000s, and the theatre has gotten a lot less respect since. The cool spire is being reused (and apparently part of the lobby is being retained) as a kind of nostalgia piece, within a new generic shopping mall that is named after the old theatre. The old auditorium was demolished in 2006.
A quick search on Flickr turns up good photos: Belle Meade Theatre
Strangely, an archive of historical info about the theatre - created by the firm that is destroying it: History
I'm not gonna lie. I stole this pic from the website of the firm that is destroying the theatre. I figured it was only fair. They don't care anyway.
Loma Theatre - San Diego, California
Built 1945, closed 1988
Converted to a Bookstop in 1990, this theatre was a fairly late example of Art Moderne. Now a Bookstar, which is part of Barnes & Noble. Architect was S. Charles Lee.
"Switched on with dramatic fanfare on grand opening night, the giant neon marquee once again dominated the landscape, reclaiming its place on the street. Seeing the theater come “back to life” in this very visible way created tremendous buzz for the retailer, and gave the neighborhood a tangible morale boost."
Pictures of the marquee on Flickr, by bhindglass: here and here.
Page by the theatre's adaptive reuse architects, with interior photos: Loma Theatre
Lowenstein Theatre - Denver, Colorado
Opened 1953, Closed 1986
Unlike the previous examples, this old theatre was never really an architectural beauty, and it was not adaptively reused as soon as it closed. It stood empty for about twenty years before finding a new use. The complex was renovated as a retail center in 2005, and opened in late 2006. Unlike the Belle Meade above, though, the renovation was done sensitively. The main theatre space was reused as the Tattered Cover Bookstore, which is a small independent chain (2 stores).
A Flickr photo set on both stores. The theater is mostly the later photos, I think. Lowenstein Theatre
An article by the Denver Urban Renewal Authority on the theatre and its reuse: Lowenstein Theatre
While it is true that each of these theatres, except for the last example, eventually came to be owned by Barnes & Noble after being converted to bookstores, and many still operate under that flag, only one began as part of that chain. They seem to have mostly been adaptive reuse projects commissioned by bookstore chains that saw the value in the easily adaptable open spaces offered by these old theatres. It seems really likely to me that Bookstop and Bookstar even actually sought out old theatres that would serve their purposes. For whatever reason, these theatres tended to be of the Art Moderne style. Perhaps earlier theatres were too small and too ornate for easy reuse.
It is good to see that bookstores saw the importance of establishing a sense of place in their mission, and acted to use adaptive reuse as the impetus to create that sense of place. While not every community in which these bookstores are housed appreciate that the old theatres have a new use - and one by a chain store, at that - it is unlikely that these old single-screen movie houses will come to life again, so this is probably the least of many evils. It allows appreciation of the old beauty without destroying it, which still imbuing new life in the structure because it houses a (presumably) profitable business enterprise. The profitability of the book business, of course, is becoming a thing of the past. As Amazon takes over and more and more people buy Kindles, it is a real threat that the old bookstore will fall into obscurity. I would, of course, like to believe that there is something about a tangible book - especially one that has been beautifully bound and embellished - that a stark plastic electronic device can never replace. But we will see. In any case, it's probably good to visit these places soon, before they start to disappear.
I'm pretty sure there's a lot more old theatres that have been reused as bookstores across the country. I would love to know about more! If you know of one I've forgotten, please comment!
Friday, January 22, 2010
One of the most awesome things in preservation is when someone decides to reuse an old building for a new purpose and treats the building’s fabric with respect when they adapt it to that new purpose. Every building has a history, and that history gives it character – makes it a specific place, instead of an undefined object that could be anywhere in anytown.
The old Plaza Theatre in Memphis, built in 1953 (the architect was Everett D. Woods) and closed before 1990 as a theatre, is just such a place. The theatre was originally used for movies (as opposed to live performance), but had only one screen and too large an auditorium to be profitable for modern use. In the early 1990s, it was renovated to become part of the Bookstar chain of bookstores (now a division of Barnes & Noble.) To modernize it as a bookstore, the seats were removed and better lighting was added. However, almost every other major element has been retained. The outside marquee was reused for the new signage and the concession stand for the cash registers. The box office remains, as do the very cool bathrooms, and even the screen, fronted by kitschy 80s theatre carpet. Barnes & Noble has a chain-wide policy of providing a internet-enabled coffee bar, but in this case, it was placed in a niche in the front of the theatre – perhaps originally these were the theatre’s offices or storage – and so doesn’t interfere with the most grand aspects of the renovation.
This is an example of a building that was never incredibly stellar in its design to start with. It was built as part of one of Memphis’s earliest strip-mall sprawl developments. While its design did have some endearing features of the 1950s, it had been significantly updated over time in most aspects. As such, it could have been easily renovated in a boring way and no one would have thought less of those making the changes. However, the new owners realized that by seeing its history and taking advantage of it, they could make this particular bookstore a place with soul – a destination. They succeeded in a big way.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
I lead a very city-centric life, but today I was hanging out with some friends in Park Ridge and we found this old theatre. The Pickwick was built in 1928, and is amazingly Art Deco (though it looks to have some streamline deco influence in it too.) The firm was Zook & McCoughey, which seems to have done a lot of homes in the suburb of Hinsdale. This theatre seems to be their most major work, and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975. It was also used in the opening credits to Siskel & Ebert's "At the Movies" in the 1980s. The theatre is actually very much in use, still for movies. The main auditorium is restored and undivided. Three smaller screens were added to the back, which in a brilliant preservation solution, make the theatre commercially viable in modern times without having destroyed its character in the process.
Monday, January 18, 2010
Image: Riviera Theatre, Chicago. From CinemaTreasures.org
As you probably know, in the early decades of the twentieth century, the streets of Chicago were riddled with hundreds of theatres, showing live shows such as vaudeville and burlesque, silent films, and eventually modern movies - or any combination thereof, and thus provided for their patrons an escape from the dirty city around them and from their sweltering or freezing apartments. By the 1950s, television and radio became ubiquitous, and because of them, not as many people went to theatres. Soon, many of the theatres began to close. But, though time and technology have marched on, many of the buildings still stand. Some, like the Uptown Theatre are well-known. But many are not. From the data I can cull off of cinematreasures.org (awesome site!), there are currently 164 old theatres still standing in the city. Most are deep within the neighborhoods, serving some new function - perhaps a church or a retail store. In other cases, they have become community centers or gathering spaces for the neighborhoods that surround them. And, sadly, quite a few of them sit abandoned and forlorn. Some are amazing palaces still filled with grandeur evoking exotic lands. Others were utilitarian from the start and can easily be overlooked as just another building of the tens of thousands that make up the city.
Using data from that site, I have put together an Excel spreadsheet of the theatres that still stand. Use this to take a road trip around the city and see what you find :-) Report back if you find anything really cool...
Spreadsheet (In Excel 97-2003 Format - download the file to your computer for best viewing)
Here is a link to ForgottenChicago's page on old movie palaces, as well: click