We finally know what the County wants to do with the Coconut Grove Playhouse

There’s a lot of love for the Coconut Grove Playhouse, one of Miami’s most iconic buildings. Even in disrepair it’s beautiful. Supporters are so convinced of its greatness that they tried to get Kevin Spacey on board the campaign to save it.

Miami-Dade County is a little less convinced. On Friday, they released their proposal for the Playhouse. While they don’t don’t want to knock down the the long vacant building and they’re going to preserve the ornate facade, they see no reason to keep the actual theater inside.

Instead the design team hired by the County recommended its demolition and total reconstruction, plus the construction of a second theater on site.

Preservationists are adamant that the whole thing be saved, not just the outside. They’re planning to fight the proposal. The first opportunity comes at a town hall on Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. at the Ransom Everglades School at 3575 Main Highway.

Let’s catch you up a bit on the Playhouse saga.

Why should I care? I never went to the Playhouse when it was open. Plus, aren’t there bigger problems in the Grove, like the eviction of low-income residents?

True. Low-income residents of West Grove are being evicted or gentrified out of the neighborhood and historic homes are being demolished to make way for luxury apartment buildings. Maybe one building seems small compared to that, no matter how iconic it is.

But the battle over the Playhouse comes as all of Coconut Grove grapples with how to balance a development boom with the desire to preserve the character of one of Miami’s most historic neighborhoods. Where the Playhouse debate goes could say a lot about where the rest of the Grove goes.

What’s the history here?

The Coconut Grove Playhouse got its start in 1927 as the Grove Theater, then Miami’s largest and most glamorous “movie palace,” according to a historic designation report from the City of Miami in 2005.

It’s considered one of the best examples in the whole city of the Spanish Baroque architectural style that was so popular in the 1920s (sometimes people also call this style Mediterranean Revival). The light blue exterior you see today has changed little from the original.

But it opened just before the Great Depression, and only managed to stay open until the 1930s. It served as a school for training Air Force navigators for a little while during World War II, but it was mostly vacant until 1955.

That’s when it became the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Miami’s first live theater. The famous architect Alfred Browning Parker did the remodeling. It reopened as a playhouse with the U.S. premiere of “Waiting for Godot” – kind of a big deal.

It opened and closed several more times between then and now. In 1980, the State of Florida purchased it. It closed for the last time in 2006. Fifteen million dollars and another $5 million in public funds have been set aside for its restoration.

Why is the facade being preserved, but not the interior theater?

The design team said that the theater has been altered so much from the original, first by Parker and then again by those who came after him, that it’s not clear what the reconstruction should even be and that this is “not favored.”

The original architect, Richard Kiehnel, built the theater in that Mediterranean Revival style, but when Parker redesigned it in 1955, he created a theater that was much plainer, in line with the modernist styles of that day. He made few changes to the outside, so the design team considers that much more historically pure.

They also said the original design couldn’t accommodate the needs of a 21st century theater.  The plan instead proposes reconstruction of the main theater that seats about 300. An alternative plan proposes the construction of another modern theater that would seat about 700.

Do preservationists disagree?

Yes. They say there’s enough documentation of the original appearance of the theater that an accurate reconstruction is totally possible. It’s been extensively described in press from back then.

That 2005 historical designation report disagrees with this year’s, with the historic preservation author writing back then that “the Playhouse still retains enough integrity to convey its original Mediterranean Revival style and still exhibits its major character-defining elements.”

What else is in the plan?

The proposal also includes a parking garage on the north side of the Playhouse that could be up to eight stories high – taller than anything else in the immediate surroundings – and include up to 35 residential apartments.

Is there still time for changes?

Yes. Tonight is only the first of many meetings about the plan. Want to hear more, make your voice heard? The town hall is Dec. 8 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Ransom Everglades School at 3575 Main Highway.

This post has been updated to clarify a few aspects of the County’s proposal.