Historic preservation during an economic downturn

The Capitan Theatre relighting ceremony in Pasadena on June 20, 2000

The Capitan Theatre relighting ceremony in Pasadena on June 20, 2000

The date is June 20, 2000. It is a cool, summer evening, and a small crowd has gathered at one end of the Corrigan Center. The event is a lighting ceremony, rather like the street lighting events that take place in Uptown Houston every November to kick off the December holiday season. In this case, it is not about streets or Christmas, with its trees all lit and adorned with decorations.

This is a relighting ceremony, signaling the complete restoration of a building exterior. That building is the Capitan Theatre, and the city of Pasadena has purchased the building, with plans for a full restoration and conversion of the space into a civic center. After funds were allocated for stage one of the restoration, work began on the exterior. Now, the results are about to be unveiled to the public.

The switch is thrown by Edward Carleton, the theatre’s original manager who had flipped the switch when it first opened. The Capitan lights up in all the glory of its heyday of more than fifty years earlier. The crowd lets out a cheer (and some good Texan “Whoops”) to the sight. In a town that has destroyed a good majority of its movie theatres, there is hope at least for the Capitan.

Fast forward to the present. The May 2009 issue of the Houston Chronicle’s GLOSS magazine features a swimsuit pictorial, showcasing model Julie Henderson of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue fame. For a suitable background for the shoot, the photographers picked the interior of the Capitan, whose walls are ornately decorated with ocean-themed murals.
The images are stunning, the models, lovely, and the walls of the theatre…

GLOSS_100pAh, there’s the rub. While the walls serve as a perfect accent to the photo session, it is noticeable that the restoration to the building exterior has not carried forth to the inside. Because preservation costs money, plans for the Capitan had to be done in stages, and things have slowed down since the lighting ceremony. Now, with a global economic downturn in force, the Capitan will have to wait even longer. Historic preservation is a difficult business, especially when its historical value is outweighed by the power of the dollar. Meanwhile, the Capitan auditorium is void of seats, and is used for storage, and the photo session will be the height of its action for a while.

The estimate for bringing the Capitan back to life is $2 to $3 million, and there is hope that the theatre will be resurrected in the next several years. But original estimates did not include a wilting economy, nor did it factor in Hurricane Ike, which has redirected the city’s focus for the time.

So for the time being, the Houston Chronicle offers a small glimpse of what once was and might be again, if only currently a backdrop for fashionable swimwear.

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Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website, www.CinemaHouston.net.

David Welling is a Houston-based writer, artist, and graphic designer. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.

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