The headline was an eye-stopper: “The Most Hated Shopping Center.”
This was in the August 6 Houston Chronicle, an article by Lisa Gray covering the latest chapter of the Weingarten saga. The story is well known by now, with the key players being the Alabama Theatre, Bookstop/Barnes & Noble, the River Oaks Theatre and adjoining Shopping Center, Weingarten Realty, the City of Houston, and the city residents (including an extremely vocal group of preservationists). When word originally slipped out that both the deco-rich Alabama Bookstop (originally the 1939 Alabama Theatre) and the River Oaks Theatre (also from 1939) might be in danger of being destroyed, there was an immediate public backlash. Houston has had a serious problem in preserving its past, and the River Oaks is the last operational historic theatre still standing. And while the Alabama has not run a film since the eighties, its appeal stems from the loving restoration it was given when transformed into the Bookstop. Then one half of the historic River Oaks shopping center was razed, to make way for a very unhistorical-looking two-story building designed to house the new Barnes & Noble bookstore. As Lisa Gray said in the opening line of her article, “On September 16, Houston’s most reviled shopping center building opens to the public.”
The day before its opening, Barnes & Noble will close its Alabama Bookstop location. All signs of this are evident inside the store, with a massive 40% sale underway. Thus, one of the premiere 1939 theatre structures will go dark with an uncertain future. It is reported that plans are to keep the structure intact. We’ll see.
It is worth noting that we are in a downturn economy, which has a way of hampering new constructions. It could be argued that historic preservation is the more favorable flavor of the day than new construction when considering Alabama and the River Oaks. How things will play themselves out when the economy is riding high again is another matter.
As to the Alabama and its present options, it is ideal for conversion into either an entertainment venue, or left as retail. The interior is still stunning to look at, the balcony is intact, and so the possibilities are considerable.
As far as an opinion on this, I find myself at a crossroads. I always prefer to accentuate the positive, and hope that the Alabama will find new life and new prosperity. At the same time, I can run down a list of historic Houston theatres that no longer stand, all falling prey to the wrecking ball: Majestic, Metropolitan, Loew’s State, Kirby, Meyerland, Cineplex Odeon, Cineplex River Oaks Plaza, Tinseltown Westchase… well, the list could go on and on.
It is worth noting that there is a Facebook group named “I Will Not Shop At The West Gray Barnes & Noble.” It currently has 804 members. When Lisa’s article came out, it had 470.
What that might suggest is that Houstonians like their books best in old deco-style theatre spaces. Works for me.