Skip links

Always Small, Maybe Doomed

As I was heading to dinner Detroit last Tuesday, I happen to pass an interesting building. My first thought was that it was the entrance to a demolished theater. It’s a little hard to tell from my photo, but that building is surrounded by a large empty lot. A lot of old theaters have “neck” buildings, where the big block of the theater is on a side street and the neck is a narrow wing to a major street. A very ornate, very tall one-story building looks like a theater neck to me. I was partly right.

That’s the entirety of the National Theater, built in 1911 or 1912 – sources vary – to a design by Alert Kahn. It’s an 800-seat theater, which is small for stage use and very small for movie use by the standards fo the 1920s. In other words, Kahn built this theater a little too early to see where the trends were going. As a result, it had an undistinguished history after its first few years. It also doesn’t fit well with current theater use, being small for stage and not obviously convertible to a modern movie multiplex. It could serve as an art-movie theater, but those generally thrive in densely-used entertainment districts. This area was once that – it was part of Detroit’s old theater district – but the other theaters are gone.

Apparently, it was scheduled for demolition but the plans may have changed. It’s a tough project any way you look at it. If the building required no work, finding an appropriate use for it would still be difficult. If the interiors are as bad off as suggested by the Historic Detroit link, then effective reuse would be saving just the facade. It’s right in the middle of the proposed new development, which is awkward even if the developer wants to reuse it. Because it’s small, the cost per square foot of doing anything will be high, which looks bad to people used to new development.

But… It’s a real piece of the city’s history. It was designed by an important architect. And the facade is so beautiful. There needs to be a way to save buildings like this, or only the easy preservation projects move ahead.