Architectural preservation one strategically-placed dollar bill at a time…

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Who knew?  Strip clubs can pave the way to urban revitalization and redevelopment!  Well, maybe not.  But consider the Norshor Theater in Duluth, Minnesota (it’s a cool city), the first entry in…Forlorn Building of the Day.

Cities across the country have countless buildings, a few worth saving and many more worth “remembering,” in varying states of disrepair and under-use.  There are so many that there are websites, (most famously, Forgotten Detroit and Forgotten New York) and organizations (e.g, Friends of the Highline and of course the National Trust for Historic Preservation) created with the aim of preserving as many as possible of these relics of past riches and present headaches.

Historic preservationists see value in the Norshor Theater in part because of its modest architectural pedigree; built in the early 1940s and designed by Jack Liebenberg, its Art Deco features include stylized wall paintings, terra-cotta cladding, and distinctive signage.  Moreover, it is located nearby numerous historic buildings in Duluth’s downtown (including another old theater, now bus shelter, the Orpheum), where the ravages of time and economic decline have bastardized (if not destroyed) plenty of the city’s historic buildings.

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What makes Norshor somewhat unique in the context of historic preservation is that there is actually little local debate on its architectural or historic worth.  Rather, debate centers on (1) what economically-viable use it should be adapted for and (2) in any event, who should pay for the costs of restoration.

The fact that funds are lacking and that there is no obvious modern use for the theater (it is too small a facility to survive simply as a movie theater or playhouse) has led, after 10(!) other abortive attempts, to its present iteration as - a strip club.

Now, depending on your point of view, the decision to allow it to reopen as such by its colorful owner (good interior photos), who sincerely does want it restored, is either a brilliantly perverse means of motivating locals to do something (anything at this point) or a sad surrender to the fact that the needed funds and community will add up to zero - or should not be expended on a building as hopeless as the Norshor.

Frankly, it being a strip club may have the effect of delaying the restoration of other historically significant buildings nearby; tourists (often families) are not known to swarm such venues (at least in Minnesota), and the street life near such joints is known to attract a certain clientele.  If I were an innocent accountant, I don’t think I’d want to force my client’s to meander under the club’s moniker on a daily basis either.

Old theaters like the Norshor have it especially tough; there is less demand for buildings of their type (in part because other, newer buildings already serve the same basic purpose) and they are not easily adapted or converted to multi-purpose venues without destroying much of their architectural value inside.

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There are a couple beautifully restored buildings down the street that were flexible enough to provide value as modern office space; at least they offer hope for other forlorn buildings, if not something so tangible as a road map.

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One Comment

  1. [...] months ago, I wrote about a Midwestern city’s struggle to restore and use its Art Deco movie theater.  Despite [...]

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