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Minneapolis Theater Marks the Latest US Movie Palace Restoration in a Netflix Era

Renovation Would Include Event Center and Live Performance Venue
September 20, 2018
New owners have proposed renovations for Minneapolis' Suburban World Theatre at 3022 Hennepin Ave. S.


The ceiling stars may soon shine again in the Suburban World Theatre, a long-vacant movie palace located in Minneapolis' thriving Uptown retail district. If plans succeed, the theater would be the only example of an atmospherically styled film venue in Minnesota to be run by a for-profit business.

Atmospheric theaters like this one typically featured facades styled to emulate Italian palazzos or medieval Spanish structures. The insides were no less ornate. Screening rooms were built to look like lush Mediterranean courtyards decked out with nude statues, faux trees and ornate terra cotta detailing. But the showstoppers were the vaulted ceilings, which were artfully made into cerulean, star-studded skies from ceiling lights complete with puffs of clouds scudding by overhead. The Suburban World went one step further with a moon that rose and set with the show.

Across the country, many showcase theaters from the golden age of film are getting facelifts amid a newfound appreciation of a building style that can be hard to find in the Netflix era. Often, the uses of these refurbished buildings are being broadened beyond film viewing because fewer people will venture out anymore to see a movie they can watch on a laptop or smartphone.

Minneapolis is now joining this wave. A local development team closed on the property, and plans to turn it into an event center and live performance venue with a small bar at the front of the house that will operate full time.

The renovation would mark a return to form for Suburban World, which debuted in 1927 as The Granada and was described by original architect Jack Liebenberg as "Moorish on the outside and Venetian within" in a 1980 interview.

"We're going to return it to its original grandeur," said Dean Dovolis, founder and CEO of the architectural firm on the project, Minneapolis’ DJR.

An entity controlled by developers Doug Hoskin and Amy Reher paid $1.5 million for the 6,935-square-foot building at 3022 Hennepin Ave. S., which has been empty and dormant since 2011. The surrounding neighborhood has experienced a shopping boom in recent years and includes such 21st century destinations such as an Apple Store, H&M, The North Face and Urban Outfitters.

The building is one of just four remaining atmospheric theaters in Minnesota, the others being in Rochester, Faribault and Austin.

The Rochester theater was last used as a Barnes & Noble bookstore. It is now owned by the city of Rochester, which paid $6 million for the property in 2015 and has approved a $1 million renovation budget for the building.

The other two are owned and operated by nonprofit arts organizations.

Across the country there are at least 1,500 restored theaters, according to Ken Stein, president and chief executive of League of Historic American Theatres, a non-profit advocacy group out of Austin, Texas. Even so, atmospheric theaters are a special breed, representing only hundreds of the thousands of impressive cinema buildings that were constructed between 1900 and 1950, according to Stein.

“They are a rare and precious gem,” he said.

The seller of the Minneapolis theater is Aventura, Florida-based Elion Partners, a development company that floated plans to turn the theater into a retail space in 2013.

That project never came to fruition, though Elion did begin preliminary work at the site. Elion’s venture is one of several thwarted reuse schemes that have come and gone since the Suburban World showed its last film in the late 1990s.

In 1999, then-owners Scott and Lisa Johnson added a restaurant in the building. It operated as the Cinema Grill until 2002, at which point the Johnsons began negotiating a lease with well-known Minneapolis restaurateur Kim Bartmann. That did not pan out, and the Suburban World went dark for three years.

In May 2005, new owner Donald Driggs successfully petitioned the city to allow live stage performances at the site. He ran a restaurant and events venue there until 2011. In 2012, the property reverted to the lender, the Commerce Bank of Edina, and was put up for sale.

Elion bought the Suburban World for $750,000 after pitching its plan to the city in March 2014.

Elion did not respond to a request for comment, but Dovolis worked on that project and said the hang-up came from the Heritage Preservation Commission, which has veto power over changes to locally designated historic sites. Suburban World was designated as such in 1991.

"The HPC was reticent about flattening the theater floor," Dovolis said, adding that this time the developers have come up with an acceptable workaround.

DJR has designed a second floor that would be constructed atop the original, with a crawl space in between, which would not alter the basic structure of the building.

"If it becomes a theater again these could be removed," Dovolis said. "Everything I’m proposing is reversible."

The overhaul also calls for ripping out the existing commercial kitchen, which was inserted into what was the lobby area, Dovolis said, as well as adding new mechanical equipment, plumbing and electrical infrastructure. From an aesthetic point of view, DJR has recommended light touch-ups to the terra cotta work, restoration of the terrazzo floors in the lobby, and a rehab of the building’s marquee.

The developers also plan to give the Suburban World a new paint job in soft greens, grays and blues, which is a period-appropriate answer to the aggressive bold colors that were added over the years.

A new commercial kitchen would be added into what was the projection area.

Hoskin said that demolition of the current kitchen and recent additions to the structure would begin this month. Hoskin and Reher’s plan got initial approval by the HPC in June but will have to go back for one more vote on Sept. 25.

If all goes well, the renovation would take six to eight months. Hoskin said the newly revamped Suburban World would probably reopen in late spring of 2019.

Once done, the Suburban World would be able to seat about 220 guests for banquet-style events, and host live performances with an audience of up to 500. The bar would have a maximum capacity of 30 to 35.



Clare Kennedy, Minneapolis / St. Paul Market Reporter  CoStar Group   
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