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Burlington, Iowa’s Old-School Movie Theater Gets a New Lease on Life

Posted on: September 25th, 2012 by David Robert Weible 1 Comment

 

Though I’m a child of the '90s, when megaplexes were popping up like Furbies and Pokemon in suburban neighborhoods, my friend Tim and I would spend rainy Saturday afternoons at the 1924 movie house my neighborhood struggled to keep open, watching and re-watching flicks like Men in Black and the Jurassic Park series.

Though they weren’t exactly Gone With the Wind, seeing these movies in a historic setting made an impression on me -- which is why I’m always thrilled to see the restoration of historic theaters across the country, including one of the latest, the Capitol Theater in downtown Burlington, Iowa.


The Art Deco building first opened with the showing of The Prince and the Pauper in 1937 and featured countless classics before closing in 1977 after a final screening of Carrie. Though it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996, the theater remained shuttered, slowly decaying from neglect, until a friends group was formed in 2003.

Since 2005, the upstart Capitol Theater Foundation worked to restore the marquee and the lobby’s colorful terrazzo floor, uncover and restore original tin ceilings and maple floors, repair the terra cotta exterior, reconstruct the ticket booth and concession counter, repair and replace damaged acoustic tiles, and expand the stage for live performances.

The building reopened after the $3 million restoration as the Capitol Theater and Performing Arts Center on June 1, almost 35 years after it was closed. And while they may not make movies like they used to, at places like the Capitol you can at least watch them like they used to.

For my money, there’s nothing better.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

 

When I think about the Motor City area, I think rolled-up shirt sleeves, firm handshakes, and American-made. So, when two native sons told me over beers on a recent Saturday afternoon that greater Detroit’s most iconic auto repair garage had been converted into a popular new restaurant, I assumed the city had lost something special.

Turns out, I was wrong.


The electric fuel pumps out front are used frequently by customers and symbolize the progress of the Motor City.

Vinsetta Garage was built in 1919 and was believed to be the longest-operating repair shop east of the Mississippi until it closed in 2010 when longtime owner Jack Marwil decided to shift gears and attend law school.

Built on Woodward Avenue in Berkley, Michigan, just 10 minutes outside the city limits, where old-timers and youngsters alike still pull up fold-out chairs on Friday nights to watch people slowly cruise their classic Fords, Chevys, and Dodges, it was considered the best garage in greater Detroit (which is saying something), and was a monument to the identity of Detroiters and their love affair with cars -- so popular, in fact, that Marwil had to turn business away.

“If you lived in Detroit long enough, [the garage] was a landmark, and being a customer was a point of pride,” says Carol Banas, a patron of the garage for more than 25 years. “Pride. It’s what the city is all about and that building and the business summed it all up.”


“We didn’t want to strip the whole thing and then say ‘Hey, let’s start from scratch,’” says Stevenson of the interior.

Given the community’s attachment, when new owners Ann Stevenson, Curt Catallo, KC Crain, and Ashley Crain decided to turn the space into a restaurant serving revamped American comfort food, they were careful to maintain the sentimental value of the building.

“My whole stance from the first time I saw the building throughout the whole process was ‘preserve what’s here,’” says Stevenson. “So much of it was honoring the building and finding the balance between what existed there and what we needed to add in for its new usage.”

To meet health codes, a cleanable ceiling was installed above the kitchen, but as a nod to the past, Stevenson framed it with the semi-opaque security glass from the skylights. She also found a way to repurpose the double-faucet sink the repairmen had used; going so far as to completely rework the design of what is now the unisex washroom just to include it.

Stevenson told me what she strived hardest to preserve were the layers of paint on the walls that dated back decades and had built up an incredible history of the building.


Even small items, like the picture (l.), were kept. And the walls (r.) certainly still have the personality of a classic auto repair garage.

But despite these and other preservation efforts, the restaurant, which opened this past May, isn’t a static relic of Detroit’s past. Stevenson says that since 2008, the city has developed both a sense of optimism and a movement to celebrate what it’s becoming. The garage, now fixed with two frequently used electric car charging stations out front, is emblematic of that.

“You’re in this garage that’s iconic and old and has existed forever, yet it’s sort of about the future. It’s not just decorative, it’s utilized,” says Stevenson.

“If it were in Canton or Scranton or Toledo or Tulsa, I’m sure it would still be an incredibly beautiful building, but the fact that we are the Motor City and it served its purpose for what the city does so well, I think it’s very symbolic.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

 

A long summer weekend finds me escaping the stifling D.C. heat back in my hometown of Cleveland and again in the thick of some innovative preservation work, this time at Crop Bistro & Bar, the dual-purpose restaurant and research and development kitchen of chef and restaurateur, Steve Schimoler, in the heart of the historic Ohio City neighborhood.

The kitchen specializes in modern American cuisine with a focus on local and seasonal ingredients and tonight, my quail stuffed with pecan cornbread, drizzled with a fresh plum sauce, and served on a bed of baby kale salad is exceptional. But perhaps the most impressive element of the meal is the setting.

To create both a viable restaurant and a legitimate research and development kitchen, Schimoler needed a big space. What he found was the United Bank Building. The classical 1925 structure designed by architects Frank Walker and Harry Weeks features six massive arched windows along the building’s facade, a coffered  ceiling, 12 bronze light fixtures ornamented in gold, and 17,000 square feet of floor space, including a 5,000-square-foot vault that now serves as a private dining room.


Diners can walk through the original vault into a private dining room.

The space was originally pitched to Schimoler as a manufacturing facility for special items designed in his test kitchens.

“So I came over and did the tour and I’m like, ‘No way,’” says Schimoler. “There’s no way you can turn this into a manufacturing facility. And I immediately was smitten with the space. I’m a total sucker for historic buildings and I knew at that moment when I walked through here, I said ‘I’m going to do a restaurant here.’”


Inside the vault.

Schimoler did much of the adaptive reuse planning and restoration work himself, including the design of the restaurant layout and the building of the bar, which entailed cutting and hand-polishing original white Carerra Marble that was discovered in the basement. He also restored the 1925 mural of a marketplace, which revealed billowing storm clouds in the background – perhaps a prescient nod, Schimoler suggests, to the October 1929 stock market crash that shuttered the building four years after its completion.

“It was almost like it was [originally] designed to be a restaurant,” Schimoler says of the building. “I have restaurateurs and chefs come in here from all over the country and they’re like, ‘we couldn’t have designed it as a better restaurant.’ It’s kind of scary.”

But the United Bank Building isn’t Schimoler’s first foray into historic preservation. He previously adapted a 200-year-old grist mill in Waterbury, Vermont that lacked running water and electricity into a similar restaurant venture, renaming it The Mist Grill (since closed).

Schimoler says his love for historic buildings is the result of his upbringing in an 18th century home on Long Island and a mother who was active in their local preservation society.

“One of the things that I’m really most proud of is that we have thousands and thousands of people that are coming through the doors of Crop who are getting a chance to see this piece of history,” he says.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

Restoration Efforts Continue at New Jersey's Squan Beach Lifesaving Station

Posted on: July 25th, 2012 by David Robert Weible

 

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but 12 years after being purchased by the Borough of Manasquan, New Jersey, the Squan Beach Lifesaving Station is getting closer to being rescued.

 
Beginning in 1848 the newly formed U.S. Lifesaving Service, a precursor to the Coast Guard, began constructing lifesaving stations along the East Coast, West Coast, and Great Lakes to house volunteers, and later, paid employees, along with boats and equipment to aid in the rescue of seamen from sinking vessels. The 1902 Duluth-style structure -- at the time, one of 41 in New Jersey and hundreds nationwide -- represents the third generation of Lifesaving Stations on Squan Beach.

In 1915, the Lifesaving Service became part of the newly formed U.S. Coast Guard. As navigation systems, maritime engineering, and technology improved throughout the 20th century, the beach-launched skiffs of the Lifesaving Service were replaced with long-range Coast Guard vessels and the station transitioned into a Coast Guard communications hub.

 
The structure was decommissioned from service in 1996 and remained vacant until 2000 when efforts by local preservationists and over 2,000 signatures on a petition to save the structure prompted the Borough of Manasquan to purchase it for $1 and set a bond to raise an initial $300,000 for its restoration.

Efforts by the Squan Beach Lifesaving Station Preservation Committee ginned up additional funding for the project, including a $450,000 matching grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust.

 
Restoration work began in December of 2006 with the removal of asbestos. Since then, efforts have focused on the first floor and included reviving the original paint schemes, refurbishing the hardwood floors, and replacing the windows.

The floor of the boat room was also raised and leveled to match the rest of the house and its bay doors were either restored or replaced. Finally, cedar shakes were installed on the exterior.

 
Still, there is plenty of work left to be done. The next step in the process is the removal of the lead-based paint that covers the porches and trim of the entire structure. After that, the roof is in dire need of replacement and the second floor remains gutted.

In the meantime, the community is making use of the structure as a community meeting place and office for the Manasquan Borough historian. The structure also houses a small museum demonstrating the area’s connection with the sea and displaying photos, prints, and objects recovered from local waters by divers. Plans are in the works to expand the museum to include a tribute to the Coast Guard and Lifesaving Service veterans who were stationed there.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

 

Named for the man who, in 1883, made it the first commercial structure illuminated by electricity, The Hotel Edison was converted over time to support a mix of uses and had been in a state of decline for years. Though they lacked any experience with historic preservation, Meghan Beck and her business partner, Bradley Niemiec, both 36, bought it anyway.

Three years and countless hours of restoration work later, the hotel, located in downtown Sunbury, Pennsylvania, is thriving.

“Basically, we want to create an environment that supports the legacy of the building as an historic landmark so it can continue to be enjoyed by guests and visitors in the future,” Beck told me.

But the real estate duo also saw it as a smart business venture. “The other side of it is that we have a lot of investments in Sunbury and believed that the success of this building was important to the downtown remaining viable,” she says. ... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.