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.
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