Curtains for historic Takoma Theatre?

March 20, 2011

In the dark, dank lobby of the shuttered Takoma Theatre, Milton McGinty ambled past moldy chairs and piles of paint flecks and pigeon feathers on the carpet.

“Birds do get in here,” he said of the dilapidated D.C. building he owns near the Takoma Metro station. “There are holes in the roof. The place is falling apart.”

The Takoma is 88 years old. McGinty is 83. “And we’re both in bad shape,” he said with a laugh.

The ongoing Takoma Theatre saga is no comedy, though. It’s an increasingly tense community drama about whether and how to save a landmark that has failed economically, with a plot that pits development against preservation (subplot: art vs. commerce).

McGinty, who wants to build apartments where the abandoned theater stands, stars opposite Loretta Neumann, who wants to save the old movie house and recast it as a nonprofit arts and culture center.

“It’s an icon of the neighborhood and an important historical place,” Neumann said. She started the Takoma Theatre Conservancy in 2007 after learning of McGinty’s proposal to raze the Takoma, which was built in 1923 and was among the first theaters in the region to show films with sound.

The District has rejected all of McGinty’s applications to raze the building, along with his appeals.

Now, adding urgency to the script, McGinty is openly rejecting an order from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to repair the Takoma’s roof, gutters and downspouts and to repaint the exterior of a building that hasn’t been used regularly since 2006.

“It’s not worth keeping up,” McGinty said. “It’s a piece of junk. I’ve had to abandon it.”

Neumann accused McGinty of “demolition by neglect.”

McGinty said Neumann is trying to buy his property at a cut rate. And her efforts are being aided and abetted by the city, which might find itself in court soon, he said. “My only recourse is to file a lawsuit for the right to build a building.”

But Neumann isn’t likely to be derailed by legal threats. She recently sent a letter to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), asking that the District consider spending $10 million to buy and renovate the Takoma, which, she said, could revitalize the Takoma Historic District in which it sits. In an accompanying financial study, the purchase price was listed at $1.6 million — exactly $350 more than the currently assessed value of the property and land at Fourth and Butternut streets NW.

McGinty, the father of WUSA (Channel 9) news anchor Derek McGinty, said the land is worth $3.4 million “without the theater.” But the Takoma — which he bought in 1983 for $325,000 — isn’t for sale at any price.

“Here’s the deal: I don’t want to sell it,” he said. “I won’t be around much longer. I’m not looking for money; I just want to build a building that stays in the family and my three children can have.”

‘Bring the Pain’

McGinty was at the Takoma on Thursday for the first time in weeks. Some of the red art deco seats under the theater’s dramatic domed light were coated with bits of ceiling plaster. In one aisle, what initially appeared to be a blob of mold turned out to be the decomposing corpse of a cat.

In one of the outside show boxes, where promotional posters used to be displayed, a city order to repair a broken window was posted.

“They’re out to get me,” McGinty said.

He pointed out the framed posters hanging on the lobby walls. They were for some obscure, long-ago plays written by one Milton O. McGinty.

What is past is prologue?

“When I bought the place in 1983, I tried to turn it into a live stage theater,” said McGinty, who had made his money in contracting and real estate. “I did what this Neumann lady wants to do with the theater, except that it never worked.

“I wrote six plays, and other people brought plays [and other arts events] in. But I lost money. I’m more than $200,000 in the hole.”

McGinty said his accountant estimated that he’d lost $240,000 on the 516-seat theater between 1983 and 2006 — a period during which the most notable booking was comedian Chris Rock, whose edgy 1996 HBO special, “Bring the Pain,” was filmed there.

Fed up with losing money, McGinty finally pulled the plug on the place whose marquee used to say “The Historic Takoma Theatre.” He has since removed the word “historic” — perhaps a bit of wishful thinking, given the problems he’s had because of the building’s protected status.

Robert Sonderman, a longtime member of the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board, which has rejected several McGinty proposals, said he sympathizes with the owner’s situation.

“He’s looking for options; you can’t blame him for that,” Sonderman said. “But his options haven’t passed muster. It’s a difficult challenge for him. He’s in a neighborhood that’s very engaged in historic preservation, and they want to make sure that he comes up with something that fits with the character of the neighborhood. That’s just the way it operates.”

A tattered landmark

From the outside, the Takoma looks like an old, brick box.

But the classical revival theater has historical significance as one of the few surviving designs by John J. Zink, whose firm designed more than 200 movie houses. (Other survivors include the Uptown and the Atlas in Washington and the Senator in Baltimore.)

Showing the popular films of its day, along with newsreels and children’s cartoons, the 1920s theater was once a major neighborhood draw, especially during summers, when it provided cool relief from the heat before the advent of home air conditioning.

But as multiplexes took over the movie industry, the Takoma, like so many classic film houses, became increasingly irrelevant. One of the few times anybody took notice of the Takoma was in 1974, when it booked an infamous double feature: “Deep Throat” and “The Devil in Miss Jones.”

Four years later, with the Takoma’s owner threatening to close the theater, a group of concerned neighbors — including Neumann — organized the first Takoma Park Folk Festival as a save-the-theater fundraiser.

Neumann, who has lived four blocks from the Takoma for more than 30 years, was delighted when McGinty bought the old movie house and converted it into a stage theater.

“Mr. McGinty fixed it up, and we were so happy about that,” she said. She went to two of his plays, she said.

But when the theater failed to make money and McGinty applied for his first permit to raze the building in 2007, Neumann started the Takoma Theatre Conservancy and showed up at a historic preservation board hearing to thwart him.

She has since secured two major grants from the District to fund the conservancy’s efforts to transform the Takoma into a nonprofit.

This week, the conservancy will present several performances of “Let Freedom Ring: The Story of Marian Anderson,” a chamber opera whose librettist, Carolivia Herron, is the conservancy’s vice president. The performance Friday at the Washington Ethical Society will be a gala fundraiser for the conservancy.

“I will not be there,” McGinty said, unsurprisingly. He was standing at the back of his empty theater. The thought made him chuckle — until it didn’t.

“What irritates me the most is these people who say they’ll be hurt if this place is gone — they never came,” he said. “They never came until I said I want out. And now they want to come?”

He shook his head and walked out.

Curtain.

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