Cape May theater's friends argue for its survival

The Beach Theatre , built in 1950, was part of Cape May's evolution as a resort, supporters say.
The Beach Theatre , built in 1950, was part of Cape May's evolution as a resort, supporters say.
Posted: April 01, 2011

CAPE MAY - Members of the Cape May Zoning Board on Thursday night reached no decision after listening to nearly four hours of testimony on whether to allow the demolition of a beachside movie theater described as architecturally significant.

The zoning board is trying to decide whether to allow Frank Investments, a Palm Beach, Fla.-based arm of a family theater company, to tear down the circa-1950 Beach Theatre and redevelop the site for apartments and retail space. In three previous hearings, members listened to more than 10 hours of testimony from residents and from lawyers and experts representing Frank Investments.

After Frank Investments unsuccessfully sued the city in Superior Court, seeking to have a previously expired demolition permit stay in force, a judge remanded the matter to the Zoning Board for a decision.

Testimony on Thursday night centered on allowing the Beach Theatre Foundation to present its case for why the building should be saved from the wrecking ball.

Historic preservation expert Richard Longstreth of George Washington University testified for the foundation. Under questioning by foundation attorney Michelle DiDonato, Longstreth called the theater "important and historically significant" in telling Cape May's story even though the building was not constructed during the Victorian era.

Cape May has long traded on its history to attract tourists, and Longstreth called the movie theater "a significant architectural legacy" for the town.

Frank's lawyer, Steve Nehmad, tried to discount Longstreth's testimony by insisting the building didn't fall under the city's ordinances for historic preservation.

"The theater has never been considered an important part of Cape May's historic preservation district," Nehmad said after the meeting.

The wrangling over the fate of the Beach is nearly as storied a history as the building itself.

Frank Theatres operated the Beach as a first-run theater for 20 years until 2006, when the company announced that it would close the town's last movie house, demolish the building, and redevelop the site.

A volunteer organization called the Beach Theatre Foundation formed almost immediately to try to prevent the theater from being torn down. It leased the property and began showing art films and other productions to packed houses to raise money to purchase it from Frank Investments, an arm of the theater company.

But the group's founder and president, Steve Jackson, said Frank Investments was asking what he called an exorbitant $12 million for the property. A large hotel on Cape May's beachfront recently sold for about half that, Jackson said.

Frank Investments was granted a demolition permit by the city in 2007, but it expired before the building was razed. The town told Frank that it needed to apply for a new permit, so the company sued the city in Superior Court. A judge ruled that Frank needed to apply again for a demolition permit to Cape May's zoning board. Frank wants to build six apartments and retain retail shops on the site.

Frank's attorneys have told the board that the theater is in an extreme state of disrepair and that the property has no more historic value than a leaky old supermarket. The foundation and a cadre of historic preservationists are contending the opposite.

Built in 1950, the Beach toned down the glitzy facades previously popular on Main Street movie houses. The more family-friendly look was created by noted theater designer William H. Lee, a protege of the acclaimed Philadelphia architect Frank Furness. Lee is noted as the chief architect for Eastern College and designer of several buildings at Temple University. He was commissioned in 1920 to renovate the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, a national historic landmark.

A recent resurgence of interest in Lee's designs and recognition of their architectural importance has been noted in various projects throughout the region, where his buildings have been renovated or are being restored, including the terra-cotta facade of the Anthony Wayne on the Main Line and the Landis in Vineland, N.J.

When Lee was commissioned to do the Beach, owner William C. Hunt, a wheeler-dealer entrepreneur, was trying to corner the market on the seashore tourist trade, which included mostly families looking for something to do at night or on rainy days. So into the design went big, roomy seats, huge air-conditioning units, and a lounge with a big television.

Though the theater doesn't tell the story of Cape May's deep Victorian era roots, preservationists say it is an integral part of the evolution of the town as a Shore resort. Tearing it down to develop condos or apartments would rip the historical fabric of the entire beachfront, Jackson said.

Cape May officials fear that demolition of the theater could be one more chink in the armor of its venerable National Historic Landmark City status. The designation gives Cape May a leg up in attracting tourists year-round who seek a side of history with their helping of sun and sand.

The National Park Service, which oversees the landmark designation, placed the resort on a "watch list" in 2002 as development pressures during a Shore real estate boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to the demolition of some key structures. Park service representatives are expected to tour the town within the next month with officials to help determine how Cape May can avoid losing the designation.


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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