Miami-Dade plan saves historic Grove Playhouse building, adds modern theater in back

December 2, 2016
The historic Mediterranean front portion of the Coconut Grove Playhouse building will be saved and restored and a stand-alone, modern 300-seat theater will be built behind it under a long-awaited architectural master plan for the revival of the landmark theater released late Friday by Miami-Dade County.

But a team of architectural and theatrical consultants led by Grove-based Arquitectonica concluded the storied theater's large auditorium, originally designed as a movie house but altered significantly in the decades since its 1927 opening, would be impractical to salvage. Arquitectonica beat out eight competitors for the job in early 2015.

The plan, which comes a full decade after the abrupt closing of the playhouse, should allay fears by preservationists and Grove activists that the county would seek to demolish the deteriorated but architecturally significant structure entirely. The theater is one of the earliest Mediterranean-style structures in Miami, and its exterior on the corner of Main Highway and Charles Avenue is protected as a historic landmark by the city of Miami.

But Groveites and theater fans shouldn't start lining up for tickets to the playhouse re-opening just yet.

That's still at least three and a half years away, Miami-Dade cultural affairs director Michael Spring said Friday. Full architectural designs for restoration and the new theater will take up to 18 months, and construction could take two more years, he said.

"I wish I could wave a wand and have it done sooner, but this is how long something like this takes," Spring said. "The good news is, we have a conceptual plan that respects the history of the building, gets us a great new theater and it's within our budget."

The team concluded that $20 million set aside by the county for the restoration and new construction is enough for the job, though Spring said it will seek to supplement that amount.

The blueprint, which will be presented to the public at a town hall meeting at Ransom Everglades' high school campus in the Grove on Thursday evening, also includes a long-sought 500-car parking garage to be built on the playhouse property's surface lot. The city parking authority would build the garage, which would front on Main Highway. The garage's ground floor would have space for shops or restaurants.

The blueprint also includes a second, alternative site plan that would accommodate a second, and larger, 700-seat theater sought by a group led by civic and cultural leader Mike Eidson. That plan would go forward only if Eidson's group can raise in full the cost of the additional theater by the time the county is ready to put the project out to bid, Spring said.

The Arquitectonica plan, the product of more than a year of analysis and design work, follows general goals laid out by the administration of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez. The county engineered a complex agreement in 2013 with the state of Florida, which owns the theater property, to rescue and reopen the playhouse under the aegis of Florida International University, which signed a 99-year lease at a nominal cost. That came seven years after a nonprofit board that ran the playhouse closed it amid a fiscal crunch.

Under the agreement with the state, the 300-seat theater will be run and programmed by GableStage, the award-winning theater company that now operates at the Biltmore Hotel. FIU and GableStage are working out an agreement for the participation of the school's drama faculty and students, Spring said.

The fate of the playhouse, widely regarded as a key South Florida cultural and architectural landmark, has been a contentious issue in the Grove. Its closure has been blamed for the failures of a string of restaurants and shops next to it that depended on theatergoers to survive. Many Groveites feared the site could be turned into commercial development.

Instead, the plan calls for saving a significant portion of the original three-story 1927 playhouse building, designed by the fabled firm Kiehnel and Elliott, that extends well beyond the facade. Although the auditorium at the back would be taken down, the project would save the existing entrance and both wings of the v-shaped building fronting Main and Charles. That portion would remain as a stand-along building, separated by a courtyard from the new theater, which has yet to be designed, at the rear.

The playhouse's principal facades, stripped of much of their ornate details over the years, would be fully restored based on archival research by the team's preservation architect, Jorge Hernandez. The historic building's streetfront arcades, which once housed shops but were closed when the movie house was converted to a live theater, would be reopened as retail or restaurant spaces, Spring said.

"We will completely restore that front building so that it will regain the glory it had when it opened in 1927," Spring said. "It was spectacular."

Miami Herald
By Andres Viglucci