Curtains for historic Takoma Theatre?

By J. Freedom du Lac
Monday, March 21, 2011; 1:29 PM

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.

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