The “Proctor’s Paper”

The following paper sparked the formation of the original Friends of Proctors organization.  Its contents are as informative and valid now as they were ten years ago.



Proctor’s Theater by Michael Lopez

Researching Historic Structures, Building Conservation Program Master’s Program Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Introduction:

An abandoned movie palace carries heavy emotional weight, a special poignancy. In the darkened hush that envelops the 2,283 seats of Proctor’s Theatre in Troy, the remnants of gilt plaster crunch underfoot, and, at the end of the seemingly interminable incline of the arched ramp, the deteriorating projection room is home to a majestic red-tailed hawk.

The theater had great moments, when Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Jimmy Durante packed the house, but more compelling are the reactions provoked by mere mention of the theater. From police officers to librarians, Proctor’s carries a memory and they share it without a touch of shyness. The theater connects people.

It is tempting to respond emotionally. Derelict theaters dot the city landscape nationwide, sad symbols of phenomena that now are so easily summarized by buzzwords like white flight and urban renewal. And, they are imperiled.

But this most knotty of preservation problems — the reuse of the American movie palace — calls for a rational approach, grounded in market analysis and budget. Simply, how can the building be used?

How it got this way: A brief cinematic history

Proctor’s Theatre was a prototypical movie palace. Built in 1914, Proctor’s was built just as vaudeville houses and nickelodeon’s began combining film and live entertainment. 1 The theater, with its five-story storefront office building was designed by Arland W. Johnson to have multiple uses.

To the modern eye, Proctor’s is a confection. Its Gothic-style terra cotta facade is an exuberant burst of gargoyles and theater masks. Inside, the sweeping proscenium arch and balconies are framed by gilt plaster ornamentation and crystal chandeliers still glimmer in the darkness.

However, compared to movie palaces that followed, Proctor’s interior is relatively modest, clinging to the Adamesque style of its antecedent, the opera house.

As flamboyant promoters assembled extravaganzas, including film, organ music and live acts, and, in the 1920s, as Hollywood studios assumed control, movie palaces metamorphosed into unrestrained, garish takeoffs, drawing from myriad styles and historic periods.

Americans did not just go to the movies; they luxuriated in the Mediterranean courtyard, toured the Forbidden City or Versailles. While some architectural critics complained that the movie palace represented a “prostitution of architecture,” George Rapp, one of the key movie palace designers, considered the theater “a shrine to democracy, where the wealthy rub elbows with the poor.” 2 In these fantasy worlds, everyone was welcome. Between 1915 and 1945, some 4,000 movie palaces followed this formula in a short-lived golden age.

Following World War II, a U.S. Supreme Court decision dismantled Hollywood studio’s vast theater empires. Television, then suburban migration, caused movie palaces to falter, then close. After what one historian calls the “demolition derby” of the 1960s, communities began to reclaim their theaters through slow and complex preservation projects.3

Proctor’s remains in sad suspension, long after a dismal decline: it closed in 1977, when 37 patrons, seated in the vast cavern, watched a Paul Newman double feature. Scores of newspaper accounts since that time describe various proposals, such as converting the building to a dinner theater or a conference center. Those overtures have withered on the vine.

Getting Started: An Overview

Since the historic preservation movement took hold in the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of American movies palaces have been remade into symphony halls, multi-arts centers and Broadway theaters. The list of theaters with a number of arts tenants numbers several dozen or more.

The non-profit guilds, management firms and preservationists are unanimous in stating the first ground rule in considering such projects. Terrance Demas, executive director of The League of Historic American Theatres, precisely summarizes the essential ingredient of practicality. “If you’re going to yell, ‘Charge,’ where are you taking them and why? You really have to sell the dream.” 4 Even more straightforward is Patrick Fagan, guild president of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, a 3,183-seat theater in Buffalo, N.Y. “If you’re going to do it just to restore and bring back the grandeur of the past, forget it.” 5

With that caution firmly in place, a well-researched use can transform a theater into a redevelopment anchor, making the arts part of the economic engine.

Providence, R.I.: A Case Study

Like Troy, Providence. R.I., has in the last two decades saw its urban vitality ebb away, its downtown landmarks, like the Biltmore Hotel, replaced by peep shows and adult bookstores.

Led by longtime mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., Providence turned to the arts to revive its downtown core, so that, in the late 1990s, publications like Utne Reader and USA Today were calling Providence a Renaissance city.6

In the last several years, Providence has cultivated a downtown artists’ district, with two theaters as linchpins of that revitalization: the monumental 1928 Rapp and Rapp Loew’s State, now Providence Performing Arts Center; and the former Majestic, now Trinity Repertory Company, a renowned theater troupe. Also worth noting is AS220, an artists’ cooperative that has converted several commercial buildings to loft and studio space.

The theaters, just blocks apart, serve very different audiences: Providence Performing Arts Center, among the first city revitalization projects started in 1978, offers Broadway spectaculars, like Chicago and Titanic , in the 3,200-seat theater. Among the most recent adaptions is the nearly $7 million reconstruction of the stagehouse, from the proscenium, back, to accommodate these massive productions. (The narrow backstage of early movie palaces is a thorny reuse problem particularly for theaters prepared to offer Broadway. Shea’s, in Buffalo, in the last two years also nearly doubled the size of its stagehouse in a multi-million dollar expansion.)

The smaller Trinity offers more intimate contemporary and classic drama, as well as the occasional musical, like the recent production of My Fair Lady.

Significantly, the Rhode Island Legislature in 1998 enacted income tax exemption for artists living within the approximately 10-block downtown district. Too, their work is exempted from sales tax. The city offers tax breaks to developers who convert vacant buildings to residential space as well.

The extent of the benefit to individual artists is not yet clear. But Janice Kissinger, executive director of Business Volunteers for the Arts, Rhode Island, pointed out that the progressive steps have attracted a good deal of national attention.7 Kissinger characterized the district as using the arts to repackage what exists in downtown Providence.

To a great extent, the strategy has worked, according to Joan Fleming, the preservation planner for the city Histroric District Commission. Recruiting artists, which the city of Peekskill has done to lure them north of New York City, has not been necessary. “They’re here anyway,” she said.8

Sue Taylor, director of special projects at Providence Performing Arts Center (the former Loew’s theater) believes the fairly new district, alone, has not made downtown a destination — yet. General Manager Alan Chille said the district and his theater’s role constitute an ingredient in Providence’s Renaissance. “It’s one more thing the city needs to do to start make the city inviting.”9

The Providence discussion is a thought-provoking one. Setting aside for a moment the raw ingredients of theater reuse — including the community will, funding and needs analysis which we will turn to in more detail — could Proctor’s Theater serve an anchor for an artists districts?

Troy for some years has grappled with the perennial problem of converting vast commercial space, particularly along its riverfront, to artists’ lofts and studios. Providence officials speak of the slow renovations there, given limited funding and a lack of information on the scattered private projects being undertaken.

Proctor’s Theater is situated strategically along the new Broadway corridor, which the city has targeted for revitalization, using the arts as a peg. The Junior Museum will soon occupy the 20,000-square-foot Winslow building, the former chemistry laboratory that is RPI’s oldest campus building. In January, the new Arts Center of the Capital Region to considerable acclaim opened its doors in a row of 19th century storefront buildings.

The theater’s five floors of raw, adjacent office space may well serve as a residential artists’ hub, generating revenue to support the stablization of the neighboring theater, which could one day be home to their visual and performance art.

Far from duplicating the venues offered at the famous Troy Music Hall or the Arts Center, Proctor’s, with its mix of residential lofts, galleries and small arts organizations, would complement a constantly coordinated, smartly marketed Troy “arts scene.” As a brief example, a performance of Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Music Hall would take place as Proctor’s showed films and staged exhibits on African history, while the Arts Center sponsored an arts-in-education program of the same theme.

Such a package, coordinated perhaps by a city arts and culture administrator headquartered at Proctor’s, would be marketed with maps and listings of Troy’s arts attractions, architecture, shops, restaurants and churches. The result: a well-oiled litany of events staged so that people perceive an almost endless round of choices in a given week or weekend.

A Lesson from Columbus, Ohio:

The rescue of the Ohio Theatre, a 1928 Spanish baroque masterpiece by architect Thomas Lamb, is a well-studied, respected example of restoration and adaptive use. From a grassroots rescue by organ-music enthusiasts in 1969, the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts has grown to become a major arts player. CAPA manages The Ohio, as well as the historic Palace and Southern theaters, offering a mix of Broadway theater, symphony, ballet, opera and jazz.

While the Ohio restoration, coordinated in the beginning the a mix of unpaid staff and prominent citizens alike, receives the most attention, Jay Panzer, director of facility development, points to CAPA’s 1986 acquisition of the Southern, a close cousin to Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Auditorium, as a more contemporary model of theater reuse.

The developer of the neighboring hotel donated the Southern to CAPA. The arrangement held another mutual benefit, since the developer repaid a federal loan to CAPA, which in turn used the money to restore the theater.

Panzer said CAPA, not facing the wrecking ball that so threatened The Ohio, had more time to study the Southern before embarking on the stabilization and restoration in late 1980s. CAPA, in applying for $3.9 million in state aid to preserve and reuse the theater, could argue the building’s significance, its important to a vibrant downtown and its usefulness to the various small arts groups, who had been identified as ready to occupy a permanent home.10

Proctor’s: A building no one needs?

Sensible theater reuse begins with a needs analysis. Less intent on architecture and engineering than a historic structure report, the needs analysis studies the market and location to determine whether there is demand for additional performing arts space.

A good study asks these questions: Does the city plan to revitalize the immediate neighborhood? How close is the theater to public transportation and parking? What is the population to be served? Are there enough organizations to pay reduced rent and could that income be supplemented by other uses? Is there available financing? What demographic trends would support or discourage a particular use?

The following outlines are meant to stimulate answers to those questions and generate more thoughtful planning.

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