An unlikely partnership yields good results for both history, progress

When the asbestos dust settles, the Lakewood Theater may be Dallas’ best example yet of the benefits for both developers and preservationists when they join hands on a project.

Craig Kinney and Bill Willingham were not initially enthusiastic about starting down the path of historic designation for the circa 1938 theater they bought in 2007. Defeated submission might be a more apt description of Kinney’s demeanor at the September Landmark Commission meeting, as the crowd of retrophiliacs celebrated victory.

One of those celebrants was Hollywood-Santa Monica neighbor and preservation architect Norman Alston, who managed to slip Kinney a business card before the theater co-owner escaped the revelry at City Hall. Less than two weeks later, Kinney and Willingham hired Alston to help them navigate the landmark process, sending a strong statement that they would do more than simply cooperate with the city — they would extend an olive branch to their “opponents” by letting one of them lead the charge.

The crowd volume had vanished from council chambers last month when Alston made his presentation to the Landmark Commission. It included a strategy that may, to preservationists’ delight, revolutionize the way Dallas treats the interiors of historic structures, and a discovery that will, to the owners’ benefit, allow for the theater’s expansion.

What’s inside does count

The earth-toned mural that wraps the lobby of the Lakewood Theater may not, by itself, warrant preservation. The fresco images depict what appear to be classic Disney cartoons, costumed dancers from exotic lands, even characters recalling Little Black Sambo — offensive today but a cultural norm when the theater opened in the ’30s.

It’s not the mural’s content but its creator — artist Perry Nichols — that made preservationists take note. Nichols, a 1929 Woodrow Wilson High School graduate, was among the legendary “Dallas Nine” artists of the 1930s and early ’40s.

The Nine and their circle made the “biggest regional, national impact” of any artists in Dallas’ history, says Sam Ratcliffe, a Lakewood Trails resident and head of the Bywaters Special Collections at SMU’s Hamon Arts Library. The collection is named for Jerry Bywaters, the most widely known of the Nine. They were young — none older than 30 — when their 1932 exhibit at the Dallas Public Art Gallery in Fair Park garnered attention from the national art community.

Nichols was the youngest, only 20 at the time of the exhibition. He would have been 26 when commissioned to paint the Lakewood Theater murals. Such commissions were common at the time, especially for government buildings. Many of the Nine supported themselves financially through the federal Public Works of Art Project, founded in 1933 as part of the New Deal. Nichols became a prolific mural artist; among his creations are five murals for the erstwhile Sears, Roebuck & Company store on Ross at Greenville and, perhaps most famously, an immense mural in the lobby of Belo Corporation’s Dallas Morning News building.

The possibility of Nichols’ work at the Lakewood Theater being damaged or demolished in the theater’s redevelopment summoned Ratcliffe to the September Landmark Commission meeting to argue that the murals should be saved. He referenced the Dallas Nine’s history compiled by his colleague, Lakewood resident Ellen Buie Niewyk.

“It’s a human side to us that we want to preserve our history, see where we came from. We’re standing on their shoulders,” Buie Niewyk says. “I’ve been here for 28 years and it’s just a shame what’s been destroyed.”

Ratcliffe and Buie Niewyk didn’t think they had much recourse, however. Dallas’ landmark ordinance is scrupulous in its protection of historic buildings’ exteriors but doesn’t extend that protection indoors.

Except in a few cases, such as several Fair Park buildings, most notably the Hall of State and Museum of Nature and Science, says Mark Doty of the city’s historic preservation office. The interior murals of Oak Cliff’s Sunset High School, a WPA project by artist Granville Bruce, also are protected, Doty says. This is due to a little-known provision of the ordinance protecting interiors that are customarily open and accessible to the public.

So far, however, the provision has been invoked only for government-owned civic buildings. The Lakewood Theater is, and always has been, a private business. It turns out, however, that a theater lobby also qualifies as public space.

“That’s a new thing for preservation here, and we’re kind of the bellwether for that,” Alston says, adding that the Aldredge House on Swiss Avenue may follow suit.

Protecting the murals doesn’t necessarily mean they will be visible in the theater’s future iterations, however. Alston’s proposal outlines exactly how to treat them; for example, no coverings that involve holes drilled into the paintings. Potential tenants also will be made aware of how to treat the art deco statues created by French sculptor José Martin, the staircase handrails by local metal crafters Potter Art, and other notable interior features.

“I told [the owners], ‘You thought you bought a theater. You kind-of bought an art museum,’ ” Alston says.

Nothing inside except the murals are included in official city landmark documents, but the owners will craft a lease agreement that “recognizes the important historic elements” and makes explicit “what you can and can’t do to them if you have to impact these items at all,” Alston says.

Alston, who has become not just the owners’ architect but also their spokesman, lauds their commitment to the “important historic fabric of the theater, including those parts not protected by the landmark ordinance.” He says what he and others perceived as their hostility to preservation “was more because they were afraid of the process, not that they’re not interested in protections.”

Theater’s history enables future expansion

While Kinney and Willingham may not be reluctant preservationists, neither are they altruists. They bought the theater and the adjacent strip of shops to turn a profit. Their fears of the landmark designation process had to do with how it might impact redevelopment options and their resulting bottom line.

Alston guaranteed the owners that he would maximize their opportunities to receive city, state and federal tax credits reserved for historic properties, money they should recoup on their renovation costs.

He did them one better, too, with his analysis of the exterior wall on the south side of the theater. He compared it to the original architectural rendering, recently rediscovered at an auction and now for sale at Curiosities, and realized the wall’s actual finish-out is different than how it was designed.

“It was pretty clear that they intended to do something there, to build retail up against it at some point,” Alston says.

The Lakewood Theater’s outside wall is a carbon copy of a corresponding wall at the South Dallas Forest Theater, designed by the same architect and built by the same company in 1949, he says. Both were constructed as free-standing theaters. The difference is that retail space eventually was attached to the Forest Theater wall.

“When did the Lakewood Theater open? ’38? Maybe a war got in the way,” Alston speculates.

Intent matters when it comes to preservation, so Alston’s discovery is fantastic news for the owners because it gives them permission to expand the theater using “the concept of reversibility,” he says.

“They could take out some block and plaster from areas that aren’t architecturally significant to make doors for a restaurant that could easily be put back and made invisible if they need to be someday,” he says. “There’s very little we’ll do that couldn’t be undone if someone steps forward and says, ‘We want that theater back.’”

The same applies to the murals, which, if covered for the next tenant, could be uncovered for a future tenant, Alston says.

Landmark commissioners grappled a bit with Alston’s proposal, seemingly because while it preserves the Lakewood Theater structure, it doesn’t guarantee that the structure will remain a theater. Alston told commissioners that the owners aren’t currently talking to any theater tenants. In the end, however, the type of business the theater houses is not under the commission’s purview.

The theater still needs the City Plan Commission and City Council’s votes to become a landmark, and there’s also the problem of parking being tackled by an ad hoc committee of neighbors. It seems, however, the “Save the Lakewood Theater” T-shirts that dominated September’s meeting won’t need to make a comeback — unless Kinney and Willingham want to don them for an ironic photo opp.

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