Metropolis: Wednesday, April 18, 2002
Theater of the Absurd

Art-house film folks were —and are— seriously interested in the 7th Street movie house.


Owners of the 7th Street Theatre said recently that they were destroying the building because it was too dilapidated to save and because investors or developers showed little interest in renovating the building as a theater.

Wrong and wrong.

“Not only was it structurally sound, it was of great value in being converted into a performing facility that would retain cinema capabilities,” said Perry Langenstein, owner of International Theatre Consultants, who did due-diligence inspections at the theater 10 years ago and again in 2001 for potential buyers. “That building was solid as a rock.”

Local filmmaker Jon Keeyes recently called a Fort Worth Weekly reporter and asked for the name and number of the theater property owner. Keeyes was interested in transforming the theater into an art-house cinema and had several times called a contact number listed on the closed theater’s front doors, but had not received a return call. The reporter determined that the number belonged to an attorney who represented the previous owner. Keeyes was shocked to learn that the new owner — the nonprofit FPA Foundation — had hired a contractor to tear down the theater and had already removed the signature marquee on April 9, before the city stopped the demolition. “That’s horrible,” Keeyes said on April 10. “Fort Worth needs an independent film theater. The 7th Street Theatre is a landmark that everybody knows and loves and would be the ideal location for this theater.”

Keeyes and his financial backers wanted to find out how much the building would cost to lease or buy. “If we can get some numbers and information from them, opening an independent theater there is what we want to pursue,” he said. “I’ve spoken to hundreds of people who all want to see an independent theater there.”

On April 14, Keeyes called the Weekly again and left a frantic message. “They’re tearing the theater down right now,” he said. Sure enough, despite the city having told the FPA Foundation to stop demolition, an excavating company was using heavy equipment to bust down the rear brick wall.

FPA Foundation was formed to oversee a street project at University, Camp Bowie, and 7th Street, a roundabout with trees and a fountain envisioned as a dramatic entrance to the cultural district, especially the new Modern Art Museum, a particular project of FPA backer Anne Marion. The arts patron pledged $25 million for the roundabout, but when city leaders and neighboring businesses failed to endorse the project, she pulled back the bucks, citing financial reverses. The FPA is led by project manager Peter Arendt and vice president William Hallman Jr., but is most commonly known as Marion’s bunch. The foundation enjoys nonprofit, tax-exempt status and bills itself as a community improvement organization. And yet, the foundation exploited a technical error to ravage a historic building and step on a neighborhood’s will.

When the marquee came down, city officials told FPA leaders that the demolition permit had been mistakenly granted, given the theater’s historic listing, and to cease destruction. Despite that, FPA apparently told their demolition contractor to continue. Hallman said in an April 12 Fort Worth Star-Telegram story that the building was being demolished because it was too costly to restore. “There’s no way that building could have been fixed up and operated economically as a movie theater,” he was quoted as saying. “The inside is a total wreck, and, from what I’ve been told, the building has no architectural significance whatsoever.”

Fort Worth Excavating, hired by FPA, removed the theater doors and other remnants and sold them before outraged city officials finally forced a halt.

The deliberate damage has increased chances that the building will be razed, although Langenstein crept through the building on April 16 for an impromptu inspection and deemed it salvageable. “We would have had to do some interior demolition and build the roof up,” he said. “It doesn’t add a lot to the cost of what we had already anticipated. There are some interested parties who are willing to put contracts forward on it.” An estimated renovation cost of $750,000 is “very reasonable” when compared to starting from scratch, he said.

Fort Worth has long enjoyed the money slung its way by Marion, who provided land and money for the $60 million new home of the Modern, being built near the 7th Street Theatre. When big-money patrons such as Marion and the Bass brothers come calling, city leaders tend to become trusting dogs exposing their underbellies. In this case the reward was the FPA Foundation’s pointed boot in the city’s gut. The 1940s art-deco theater is a beloved landmark at the recently redone intersection where the roundabout had been planned.

The FPA Foundation bought the theater a year ago from the original owners, the Milligan family, after vowing to keep the building as a theater — a promise that pleased the family, neighborhood residents, cultural district visitors, and historical preservationists. Hallman, the foundation’s spokesperson and vice president, is a partner in the Kelly, Hart & Hallman law firm, which counts Marion and the Bass brothers among its clients. Marion is great-granddaughter of cattle and oil baron Burk Burnett and oversees the family’s Four Sixes Ranch, one of Texas’ largest.

The foundation is secretive, for a nonprofit that defines itself as a neighborhood development and improvement group. A secretary on April 15 said Arendt was out of town and unavailable for comment. He left town on Saturday, she said, which was about the time the excavating company began whacking on the theater. The demolition stopped only after a concerned resident risked injury by physically blocking workers and heavy equipment until city officials could be located.

The secretary also said she could not provide the nonprofit group’s tax form, information required by law to be provided on request. Nor would the secretary provide the names of board directors. She said to request the information from Hallman, who did not respond to five messages over a five-day period, although his secretary said he was in the office. A visit to Hallman’s downtown offices — the address listed for the foundation —was equally fruitless. A secretary eventually suggested a law firm accountant could help. The accountant, contacted by phone, said she had no information and hung up.

Ineptitude by city officials made it easy for the FPA Foundation to swing its wrecking ball. The city’s Planning and Development departments said they boo-booed by issuing a demolition permit, and then failed to issue a written stop-work order immediately after the mistake was discovered. These departments are usually stringent when it comes to making property owners jump through hoops to preserve historic buildings.

City officials said that a planning department employee erroneously issued a demolition permit for the theater — erroneous because demolition of a historically listed building must be approved by the city council. Because of the error, the FPA Foundation was able to hire a contractor to begin tearing down the theater on April 9. However, neighbors quickly called City Hall to complain. “I immediately notified the director of the development department, Bob Riley, and he immediately issued a stop-work order to halt demolition,” said Planning Director Fernando Costa.

Riley said city inspectors told the contractor and Arendt verbally and by email that demolition should stop. Still, the contractor returned on April 14 — a Sunday — and wiped out a wall and numerous rows of seats. The contractor and FPA claimed that no written work order was issued. Riley said the verbal agreement made the previous week was understood by FPA. In hindsight, he said, his department should have immediately issued a written order. “I guess we were in error there,” he said. A written stop-work order was issued April 15.

City council members are expressing concern about FPA’s methods and the damage done to both the theater and the community. “We’ve been working closely with the FPA Foundation on issues related to the roundabout, and we thought we had an understanding with them that this (theater) was an important community asset,” City Councilwoman Wendy Davis said.

Costa was apologetic about the situation, but said the city’s part in it stemmed from honest errors, not a surrender to pressure from the influential FPA. “We made an administrative error which obviously we regret, but I’m not aware of any illegal or improper conduct that would have led to that administrative error. At no time did anyone try to exert any pressure or undue influence to secure that certification.”

Despite the FPA’s behavior, penalties will be light or nonexistent. Riley said no citations have been issued, and since the destruction occurred before a written stop-work order was issued, none may be forthcoming — unless, of course, FPA thumbs its nose at the city again, sneaks down to the theater this Sunday, and tears down more walls.

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