Kevin Riordan: Is the Westmont Theatre worth restoring?

The Friends of the Westmont Theatre want the old vaudeville and silent-movie house to offer films and shows again.
The Friends of the Westmont Theatre want the old vaudeville and silent-movie house to offer films and shows again. (MEL EVANS / AP)
Posted: August 01, 2012

The Westmont Theatre went dark a decade ago, but it still attracts fans. Foes, too.

Lately, they're disagreeing on whether a recent cost estimate supports the notion of restoration or suggests the need for removal of the forlorn landmark in Haddon Township.

To return the structure "close to its original state" would take $3.1 million, according to DF Gibson Architects of New York City.

"That sounds good to us," says Allen F. Hauss, who heads the Friends of the Westmont Theatre. Brent J. Donaway, the group's treasurer, made a student film, The Grand Old Lady, that documented the deep affection many locals have for the Westmont.

The Friends yearn to have the onetime vaudeville and silent-movie house, which opened in 1927 on Haddon Avenue, offer films and live shows again.

Downtown Westmont "needs more than another bar or condo," Hauss says. "You can't just knock the theater down."

Or maybe you can. "Razing the Westmont . . . opens the window of opportunity for bold, fresh ways to move ahead," insists DJ and recording artist Michael Tearson, who lives two blocks from the theater.

"There could be shops. There could be performance spaces and an arts center. . . . There could be apartments," he says. Keep the theater, he says, "and you're rooted in a past which no longer works."

I regularly saw movies at the Westmont in the late 1970s, before the majestic 1,200-seat house, with its Streamline Moderne design elements, was bisected into two nondescript auditoriums.

After the last picture show in 1986, I patronized plays and musicals staged there by the Living Arts Repertory Theatre. A 1999 Bruce Cockburn concert marked the last time I was in the place.

The Gibson report, which a $41,000 state grant underwrote and Haddon Township, the theater's owner, commissioned, contains little to sustain my nostalgia.

Photos reveal an interior far less fabulous than I remember. The architects found water damage and evidence of encroaching decrepitude everywhere.

Just to replace the plumbing and other utility systems would cost $1.1 million.

The building's shell "is deteriorating at a very rapid rate," Peter C. Pivko, an associate principal in the firm, says by phone from Manhattan. "The roof is reaching the end of its life."

But Pivko says parking - always a concern in determining the feasibility of restoration - would be no problem, depending on the number of seats in a renovated facility.

Tearson and other nearby residents insist that patrons of a new version of the theater would clog the neighborhoods on either side of Haddon Avenue with traffic. A shopping center stands where theater patrons, including me, once parked.

Though the heart of Westmont offers a number of great restaurants and retailers, it's tough to generate Collingswood-style buzz for an avenue that's a mashup between a walkable downtown and a suburban strip.

Cars already rule in Westmont. So I'm disappointed that questions about accommodating the automobile, rather than meeting other community needs, dominate discussions about the theater.

Would Pitman be better off if its jewellike Broadway Theatre had been torn down for a parking lot? Would downtown Vineland be on the rise without the Landis, and would Millville rather not have its Levoy restored?

Closer to home, aren't the Ritz Theatre Company and the Scottish Rite Auditorium wonderful amenities for South Jersey?

It really would be a shame to lose the biggest, and most architecturally distinctive and potential-packed, commercial property in the heart of Westmont over a beef about parking.

Alas, that's not the only problem. With the Ritz and Scottish Rite barely 10 minutes distant, it's not clear to me whether the market could support another performance venue.

There's been talk about the potential availability of preservation grants, and of various unnamed parties expressing interest in the theater. Neither the Friends nor the township has the cash to do the job.

And with all due respect to the folks at Gibson, I bet transforming the Westmont could cost more than $3.1 million.

Hauss, a former projectionist at the Westmont, insists the long-stalled restoration effort is gaining momentum.

"I would say everything is with us," he says. "Everything except the money."


Kevin Riordan:

Take a sidewalk tour of the Westmont Theatre at www.philly.com/westmont


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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