Besides doing our own projects and renovations, we love watching the work of other area undertakings unfold around us. Since moving to Old Town Alexandria in 2003, we've been observers to a progression of sorts, watching as the various storefronts, buildings, houses, and areas in and around the city have transformed before our very eyes.

Looking back, we wish we would have taken so many more "before" photos over the years. In the time prior to our blogging days we weren't quite as concerned with documenting the change. Now our keen eyes and convenience of always having a decent camera handy (thanks to smart phones) have allowed us to capture the various changes in our neighborhood as they happen.

Recently we had the enjoyment of watching as a neighborhood landmark we were concerned might ultimately be lost was thankfully resurrected over the course of several months of diligent effort.

When we look back on our move to the DC area in 2000, we fondly remember driving down King Street as we discovered Alexandria for the first time. Old Town is such a different place from the suburban landscape where we grew up while living in Ohio, and we were in awe at the quaint and friendly streets that would eventually be our home. One building, in particular, stood out to us as a true welcome sign for the area. With its large block letter marquee looking out over the city's main strip of King Street, the Old Town Theater initiated us and informed us of exactly where we had landed.


Old Town Theater -- The Richmond -- In the 1950s

Though the theater was closed when we moved to Old Town, the marquee and building remained as a reminder of the various small towns the DC metro area ultimately sprang from. When the theater was purchased in 2003, with the intention to return it to a functional movie theater, Wendy and I were both extremely excited. It's long been a dream of mine to live within walking distance of a small local movie theater. My friends who lived in Oberlin, Ohio, nearby my hometown, had all experienced this when we were kids on our various trips to the historic Apollo Theater. 

There was something to simple and nice about walking to dinner, then to a movie, then grabbing ice cream after the show. When the theater in Old Town reopened, Wendy and I, along with neighbors and friends, did our duty as patrons and supporters and made sure to see movies there almost exclusively. It didn't matter that the sound system was sub par, it wasn't IMAX, didn't have theater seating, or in any way HD/digital (it was still using reels in canisters), it was our local theater. It was an experience above all else. The sound would often fall out of sync with the actors' lips, the heads would get cut off at the top of the screen after a reel change, and sometimes the movie would just stop for 10 or more minutes and someone would need to go outside and get Roger, the owner of the theater, so he could head up to the projection room to fix it. 

These are all things that are unacceptable when going to a major theater, but they are all expected when we're talking about a neighborhood establishment where the owner sells tickets, introduces the movie with a little speech (instead of commercials and trailers on the screen), and runs the projection booth. The theater has seen a lot of owners over the years, and I'm relatively sure they've all run themselves ragged to make it work.


1930 Photo of the theater courtesy of Alexandria Times 

The Old Town Theater was quintessential small town life amogst a big city. It was charming, they had a liquor license, and it was a great way to see first run and Oscar nominated movies without the hassle of crowds and parking, something we'd see at a larger theater. More than anything, it was a holdover and throwback that simply couldn't last forever.

Sadly, as we mentioned in a blog post from 2012, Roger decided to sell his theater and retire once and for all. We were all rather concerned for the future of the theater, as we all heard everything from "mixed use office and commercial space," to the possibility of "several condo units." The risk of the theater disappearing and losing its original intended use from the time it was built in 1914 was quite worrisome. Deconstruction of the theater's deteriorating marquee began, and we didn't know if we'd ever see it again.

After several ideas were kicked around among the new owner and the city, a newspaper article cited discussions with the city and several potential tenants bubbled to the surface. This gave hope to the idea that a true theater company of some sort would be able to take over and restore the original and intended function of the theater. And though the "Old Town" marquee was not an original element to the building, its addition in the 1980s felt "right" along King Street, so the hope it would be rebuilt abounded.

We watched the construction continue for months on end, periodically catching some major progress of items being removed or re-installed. At one point we watched as the marquee we had grown so accustomed to transformed into a steel skeleton of itself.

After what seemed like an eternity of deconstruction, the reconstruction of the building began. We'd walk by often and peek in trough the windows at the newly exposed brick interior that showed the original form of the theater.

The most apparent work continued on the theater's exterior, though I'm sure an extremely significant effort was underway inside. We can't tell you just how happy we were when we saw the first steps of the marquee rebuild occurring. This minor element gave hope to the fact the theater would once again become what it was ultimately always intended to be.

One of the significant days of the project shed some light on the various color choices the owner was contemplating for the theater's trim elements.

Over the months of rehabilitation work we watched, and we waiting for the return of the "Old Town" sign, not sure if it would ever grace the façade again.

Then, one day, there it was! It had returned!

The new letters are far more understated than the old white and fluorescent lit letters. They class up the joint a bit, if you know what I mean. They even added a very attractive row of lights to the surround of the marquee, which definitely brought in more of an art deco feel to it (at least for me).

As the overall renovation progressed and the theater's re-grand opening drew near, we once again felt fortunate to live near a treasure of this sort that simple doesn't often exist along many cities main streets.

A few more weeks passed and the theater really started to take shape.

We even took a quick glimpse in through an open door one day, just to get a feel for the newly polished interior.

The new Old Town Theater had its grand opening on an evening in December 2012. They brought out the red carpets and velvet ropes for the event, and the little Old Town Theater sprang back to life.

The renovation had been completed and was done in an absolutely beautiful way. We'd watched all along and are so happy it turned out as it did.

Though we've not been to a show since its opening, we plan to go to one soon. They are a live variety theater and offer everything from comedy shows to live music or the occasional movie (especially during Oscar season). You can even book the venue for various private events.

Ok, Maybe I'll need to get a photo someday where there aren't cars...

Despite our fears, our Old Town Theater was not lost to the redevelopment and constant "improvement" that often accompanies an urban revival. Instead this character element of our community survived, almost against all odds. We're now left with a neighborhood jewel that could have easily have been lost.

Incidentally, the Apollo Theater I mentioned in Oberlin, Ohio also recently underwent a major renovation. Perhaps this can set a trend of bringing a little bit of small town main street back into everyone's lives.  

Have you been to the Old Town Theater for an event since it reopened? What did you think? Do you have any fond memories of the Old Town Theater from years ago? Are there buildings in your town that the community is fighting to save? Any other local stories of historic preservation you'd like to share? As cliched as it sounds, we're stewards of our towns, cities, and countries, and projects like this make us smile, as we know this element of our city's history will be preserved for future generations.

Comments 15

Comments

Karin K
6/11/2013 at 11:19 AM
Very cool! I have two of these gems nearby: The Naro, in the Ghent section of Norfolk, and The Commodore, in the Old Town section of Portsmouth. The Naro has traditional theater seating complete with a balcony, and the Commodore is a dinner-theater format with phones on all the tables for ordering. Both very well-done. I'm glad yours was reclaimed and not turned into a Subway or a "dance club".
Alex
6/17/2013
Both sound very cool. I like the phone on the table idea. If I ever ran a theater/diner, I'd definitely do just that.

I agree, what we have is far better than another Subway. However, I wouldn't mind if it served double duty as a theater with a dance floor. Might be sort of fun (as long as it's primarily a theater).
6/11/2013 at 1:52 PM
It's very nice to see these old theaters being resurrected. They are irreplaceable treasures that often get overlooked in urban redevelopment. Thankfully more people are starting to see their beauty and potential once more.

There is one about ten minutes away from us that we really feel sorry for - the Mayfair theater on Howard Street in Baltimore. It originally opened in 1903 and was a beautiful example of Neoclassical architecture. Unfortunately it closed around 1987 and the roof collapsed ten years later under a wet heavy snow. The facade and marquee are all that remain today - pretty much everything else has been destroyed by sitting in the elements for 15 years.
Alex
6/17/2013
Ugh, sounds like the Mayfair is unfortunately lost. It's pretty hard to recover from a roof failure.
Merilee
6/12/2013 at 12:55 AM
There are three buildings I can think of in my state that were given second life.

The first is the Ellen Eccles Theatre in Logan, Utah. It's story is very similar to that of your Old Town Theater's story. The history can be read here: www.centerforthearts.us/history.html.

Another building, also in Logan, UT, that underwent historical renewal is the Cache County Courthouse. I passed by this building all the time growing up. It was white during my growing up years. The restoration was done after I married and moved away but my parents still live in Logan and I passed by it when I drove through to visit them. It's story is here: www.utahheritagefoundation.com/saving-places/heritage-awards/2007ha/item/106-cache-county-courthouse-logan#.Ubf8TZyG2LI.

The third building is the Provo City Library at Academy Square. Academy Square was the original site of Brigham Young University. When the University moved to its present location, the original site was essentially abandoned. There were 5 buildings on the site if I remember correctly. All were slated to be demolished until concerned citizens stepped up and the biggest and grandest building was saved and restored as the city library. That story is found at www.provolibrary.com/academy-history. I am sure there are many more in the state of Utah but those are three I remember particularly well.

I love history and believe that the old buildings are essential parts of our history. It breaks my heart to see historical buildings demolished and replaced with characterless modern buildings. I know sometimes they can't be saved but when possible I love to see people willing to pay a little extra in taxes or to help raise money to preserve these specimens of our history.
Alex
6/17/2013
Those places look amazing, and quite a bit larger than our humble little theater. What a true treat that they were saved, and it looks like a beautiful job was done.
6/12/2013 at 4:59 PM
When we lived in Oxford, we were less than two blocks from The Pheonix Picturehouse and we loved it! It was a fairly low-key little theater with a bar upstairs, a nice selection of more upscale food options, and few, if any, previews. (And, when we went to see The Golden Compass there, we saw Phillip Pullman in the lobby!)

We have not gone to one of the shows at the Old Town and I haven't heard anything about them. Would be interested in hearing if they are any good ...

Cheers!
Alex
6/17/2013
Maybe we can go to a show and do a little review of some sort.

The one in Oxford sounds pretty great.
6/12/2013 at 9:47 PM
I love seeing these pictures!!! I think... but don't quote me on this... that it used to be used for puppet shows in the late 70s/ early 80s. (I don't remember, but I feel like my parents mentioned taking us to some.)

This is also where I saw Titanic, among other movies... ah the memories. So happy to see it come back to life!

Thanks for posting!

Charlotte
www.ciburbanity.com
Alex
6/17/2013
Though it was before our time, you're absolutely correct, it was a puppet theater at one point. How very cool!
Will
6/13/2013 at 5:38 PM
The restoration is great. But when I see the old picture, next to the new... Kinda pales in comparison. I don't properly appreciate the up date.
Alex
6/17/2013
We appreciate it because we know what it could be, but you're absolutely right. If I were the owner you had better believe it would look a lot closer to the 1930s photo, but that's just me. Also, I probably would have done it all myself and made it take 20 years to accomplish.
Sarah
6/15/2013 at 11:17 AM
I used to see movies there all the time in the mid-to-late '90s! The old balcony was made into a smaller theater for the not headliner movies, the main theater was for the big name movie.

I also saw Titanic there, and The American President, and many more (but less memorable) ones.
Alex
6/17/2013
Yep, the 2nd theater screen was always a bit of a let down, especially when the sound would bleed over from that screen to the lower one.
Ken Gallahan
8/1/2014 at 3:16 PM

The Old Town Theater on King Street has once again closed, this time after only seven months of operation. This beautifully renovated theater will either be rent out to another venue operator or will be gutted and leased out as retail or office space, I believe the latter, due to some information I can't share in this post. The theater looks great and is located in wonderful spot. The reasons for closing are because of poor management and not having the resources to operate in a professional manner.

I'll bet if enough of us banded together we could save the Old Town Theater.

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