The Lakewood Theater has stood as a colorful and beloved East Dallas landmark in Lakewood Shopping Center since its 1938 opening. So recent news reported by Nancy Nichols at D Magazine that the theater, located at 1825 Abrams Parkway, will be getting new tenants and a new look next year has preservationists and neighbors concerned. This is because the theater has historic designation (in other words, protection from demolition) on neither a national nor local level.
The lease for the current tenant is over at the end of January, and property co-owners Craig Kinney and Bill Willingham of Willingham-Rutledge have been talking to restaurants and businesses that could fill the space. They’ve also hired local architectural firm Good Fulton & Farrell, which, from the look of the their renderings, could end up dividing the theater’s square footage among multiple tenants. But there’s also a possibility of it remaining a theater, or becoming a theater with a restaurant. There are about 11,000 square feet in the theater and interest in the space is high, Kinney said.
If all this sounds ambiguous, that’s because it is. The owners are nowhere close to a decision: “We have one [business] that wants to have the whole space and keep it a theater,” Kinney told Nichols. “We have other options that may involve carving up the space. We just don’t know yet.”
Given the history of developers in Dallas bulldozing historic buildings, like the September destruction of the 1885 Romanesque Revival building at 1611 Main Street as part of The Joule’s expansion, preservationists and neighbors are raising a bit of a ruckus on behalf of the theater. A “Save the Lakewood Theater” Facebook page, which was created Nov. 7, already has more than 4,200 “likes” and lots of activity, for example.
But Kinney is quoted by Nichols, the Dallas Morning News and Lakewood Advocate as calling the theater tower exterior “sacrosanct,” “iconic” and a “great asset to us,” and says nobody needs to be “freaking out.” So that’s promising.
But we’ll have to take him at his word. The closest thing the Lakewood Theater has to historic designation is its inclusion in a Planned Development District, encompassing the shopping center and some space near it. Take the time to read that linked PDF and you’ll find that the protection is both minimal and totally voluntary. So really, there’s nothing to ensure the theater doesn’t get turned into something really depressing or demolished completely. But there’s also no indication the co-owners have any intention of doing that.
So why all the fuss over the Lakewood Theater? Because as their webpage notes, it is Dallas’ sole remaining single-screen movie palace in anything resembling its original condition. Designed by noted architect John Eberson, the theater and its 100-foot red, green, and blue Art Deco tower isn’t just a pretty landmark: it’s host to performances, screenings and community events, like the Oct. 15 Ebola town hall meeting. It’s a funky, fun space that inspires delight among neighbors. And in an area like Lakewood, which prides itself on being distinctive and offbeat, any major changes or “commonplace commercializations” of the space are likely to be met with loud resistance.