It’s our neighborhood’s watchtower, a lighthouse, the grande dame of the Lakewood Shopping Center. What happens to the Lakewood Theater is a bellwether for the surrounding shops and homes.
Its storied history as a suburban Dallas movie house began in 1938, and last month the Dallas Landmark Commission set the theater on a path toward becoming an official historic landmark. Preservationists exhaled sighs of relief as the owners braced themselves for the grueling process. “We won!” said someone wearing a “Save the Lakewood Theater” T-shirt.
What happened in early September, however, was more nuanced than one side standing victorious while the other waved the white flag in surrender. Instead, at the commission’s open hearing on the Lakewood Theater, both sides came to the table and agreed to prove themselves.
The owners pledged to make good on their assertion that “we are not here to harm the Lakewood Theater; we are here to save it,” as theater co-owner Craig Kinney put it to the commission. And historic preservationists assured the owners that “this could be an advantageous process for you as well,” as Landmark Commissioner Stephen Birch responded to Kinney.
Seats in City Hall’s council chambers were almost full of people who had shown up to support making the theater a historic landmark — possibly the largest crowd ever to attend a Landmark Commission meeting.
The owners could read the writing on the wall. They had hired a zoning consultant and zoning attorney to help smooth all the ruffled feathers, and when it came time for co-owner Craig Kinney to approach the mic and speak “in opposition” to the theater becoming a historic landmark, he told the passionate crowd gathered that he wasn’t really opposed to the designation.
“We all know the truth here: The Lakewood theater is a Dallas landmark. It has been for decades,” Kinney said.
The problem, he said, is that “anybody that has been in the theater the past couple years can see that it’s in bad shape.” He rattled off a laundry list of repairs the theater needs, estimating it would cost around $1.5 million to restore it. And the problem with undergoing landmark designation, Kinney noted, is that it requires the city to sign off on everything.
“If I’ve got a broken window and it’s the middle of winter, 25 degrees out, snow blowing, I can’t wait 30 days to fix it,” Kinney said, referring to the timeline on the city’s website. He similarly didn’t understand “why would it possibly take two years to designate this beautiful building?”
The commission reassured him that those timelines were extremes, that a broken window is considered an emergency fix and can be done immediately. As far as how long designation will take, commission chairwoman Katherine Seale committed to making sure city staff “receives the message that we do this in a very expedited way.”
“I certainly think it it’s the realm of possibility that it can happen within six months,” she said.
Gathering everyone in the same room may indeed work out to both sides’ benefit. To their credit, the owners extended the olive branch by hiring someone from the opposition — neighborhood architect Norman Alston, who actively worked with the “Save the Lakewood Theater” effort (and whose visions for the shopping center appear on page 58). Alston, whose expertise is historic preservation, will navigate the owners’ journey toward landmark designation.
When Alston sat down with Kinney and co-owner Bill Willingham, he says it became clear that “what we have perceived as difficulty in the past is really just not being familiar with the process. There were no horns growing out of their heads or anything.”
“What they pounded into me is that they don’t have any intention of screwing up the theater, so I’ve been brought in to make sure we’re all pulling on the same rope.”
Alston reiterates that “it’s going to be as quick as this process could reasonably be expected to go.” But even if all its historic architecture and the interior murals, painted by Woodrow graduate Perry Nichols, are saved, the Lakewood Theater still may cease to be a theater. Just because the city designates a building as a historic landmark doesn’t mean it can dictate how it is used.
To that end, the commission proposed something a bit innovative: In the next few months’ process toward landmark designation, the Lakewood Theater owners not only will work with the designation committee on the brick and mortar aspects of historic preservation; they also will work with a task force of neighbors to provide assistance on issues such as parking — which was a hang up in the owners’ negotiations with Alamo Drafthouse — to give the building’s historical use a better chance of continuing into the future.
As it stands, both the owners and preservationists are dependent on each other to get what they want — “a community asset that is also a real estate asset,” as Kinney’s zoning attorney described to the commission. Both sides have a matter of months to hold up their respective ends of the bargain, and the future of the theater hangs in the balance.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.