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.
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.
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.