Kevin Riordan: Haddon Twp. landmark gets a start rebuilding

Posted: May 05, 2011

Coming soon to the Westmont Theatre: A $50,000 grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust.

The money will help pay for the first comprehensive study of the physical condition and redevelopment potential of the vacant building, among the largest commercial structures on Haddon Avenue.

"This is great news," says Haddon Township Mayor Randy Teague.

"It's exciting," says theater historian Allen F. Hauss.

I agree: This beloved - if woebegone - landmark is irreplaceable; it played a starring role in the life of the community for a half-century.

Tight parking may be an obstacle, but if the theater can be reborn as a mixed-use entertainment venue, it could make the commercial heart of Westmont a regional destination.

"There's a strong group of people who want to see the theater as a film and performing arts venue," says Brent J. Donaway, whose 2007 documentary about the theater, The Grand Old Lady, is a rallying point for Westmont Theatre lovers.

Opened as a 1,200-seat vaudeville house in 1927 and modernized in the late 1940s, the theater for decades was one of the largest first-run movie houses in suburban Camden County. Hits ranging from The Sound of Music to The Exorcist enjoyed long runs there.

In the early 1980s, the theater was "twinned" into two auditoriums. The final curtain came down on movies in 1987; the Westmont hosted a live theater company, as well as occasional concerts, until about a decade ago.

It has stood silent since, even as the township spruced up Haddon Avenue, and a number of redevelopment proposals for the site, including a cluster of restaurants and a townhouse complex, have come and gone.

Meanwhile, the township, which leases the theater from the Camden County Improvement Authority, made emergency repairs to the marquee and elsewhere in the building. And the "strong group" cited by Donaway continued working to save it.

Margaret Westfield, a preservation consultant based in Haddon Heights, helped get the theater listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places last year. Besides making demolition more difficult, the designation paved the way for the funding, which the trust approved Monday.

"This money is going to make all the difference," Westfield says. "Now we can start moving forward."

She notes that an extensive vertical crack on an exterior wall suggests "some serious structural problems." But the interior appears to be in good condition, says Hauss, a Cherry Hill resident and author of South Jersey Movie Houses (Arcadia, 2006).

Hauss, who recently photographed the lobby and other areas inside the theater - where he once worked as a projectionist - is a founding member of a new nonprofit organization that hopes to raise private money for restoration.

That may be a challenge.

"Nobody has really said, 'Here's the money,' " Hauss notes.

With earlier restoration estimates ranging from $5 million to $7 million, no wonder the Westmont has been something of a touchy political issue in years past. And not everyone in town is eager to see hundreds of people converging on Haddon Avenue for entertainment.

But Teague wants to see the theater restored.

"It would be a nice draw for the entire business district, and it would set us apart from neighboring towns," he says, noting that the studies should determine the most feasible redevelopment.

"It will give us an idea of what we can pursue."

Donaway, who grew up in Haddon Township and now lives in Magnolia, says he has long planned a sequel to The Grand Old Lady. But lately, events are moving too quickly to predict.

"The story keeps going," Donaway says. "Maybe it will end with the Westmont being restored."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com. Read the metro columnists' blog at http://www.philly.com/blinq

 

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