Theater of the Absurd

When the Shubert inched down Hennepin Avenue a year ago, Minneapolis politicos promised a bright future for the historic theater. They didn't mention stingy legislators, taxpayer bailouts, or the specter of the wrecking ball.

The grandest proposal for the site, delivered by Loon State Ventures in 1995, posited a three-block "entertainment" complex that included a renovated Shubert as a community theater; the developers warned, however, that the structure was in such bad shape that it would become unsalvageable if not soon renovated. Their warning fell on deaf ears, however, and the city settled on the less ambitious one-block complex proposed by Brookfield LePage (now Brookfield Management and McCaffery Interests). Brookfield had no interest in reusing the Shubert, and it was assumed that once the development got under way the theater would simply be bulldozed.

But preservationists weren't quite ready to give up. In 1995 the theater--already on the city's official list of historic properties--was added to the National Register of Historic Places, complicating the prospect of a demolition. The Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission generally denies demolition permits for designated historic buildings, according to longtime member Bob Roscoe, though the city council can override its decisions.

As the Block E development deadline approached, a group of preservationists dubbing itself "Save Our Shubert" began agitating for reuse of the theater; in 1997 their campaign got a boost from a Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) study that determined the Shubert to be an ideal venue for touring dance and theater performances.

Michael Dvorak

Fortuitously, Artspace, a fast-growing nonprofit developer headquartered in the nearby Hennepin Center for the Arts, had in hand a study commissioned by the Jerome Foundation, indicating a need for a "midsize" theater serving those same shows. "The impetus for the Shubert project came from us rather than from the city," asserts Artspace president Kelley Lindquist. "We'd been talking with people in the arts community about a dance space around the Shubert for decades."

The vision Lindquist's group eventually proffered to the city posited the Shubert as part of an urban revival analogous to that of 42nd Street in New York. Artspace's proposal pointed specifically to the example of the New 42nd Street Corporation, an independent nonprofit redeveloper founded by New York state officials in 1988 and charged with revitalizing the blighted Times Square area (theretofore the nexus of an entirely different stripe of entertainment district) by reclaiming historic stages.

Ambitious though it seemed, the plan dovetailed nicely with Minneapolis officials' vision for the area. The city had already spent close to $24 million buying and rehabbing two other historic theaters, the State and the Orpheum, and another $1.2 million financing a stage for the privately operated Hey City Theater. When planners looked into the future of Hennepin, they saw something very much like the past: an avenue of theaters casting a warm glow over a middle-class throng drawn downtown to shop, eat, and catch a show.

But renovating the Shubert where it stood, officials determined, was not an option: Because Brookfield held development rights for Block E, the city faced a potential lawsuit if it didn't clear the block. And so it was that in February 1999 the venerable venue was hoisted--sans foundation, stage house, and one wall--onto 570 rubber wheels and carted across Sixth Street. For better or worse, the theater's fate was now in the hands of Artspace.

 

Inside the derelict Shubert, a thick layer of plaster and dust has settled. It is cool and dry, and the only light comes from pale construction lamps. A mildly treacherous wooden staircase zigzags up past what was once luxury box seating, to the steeply raked second mezzanine. The unadorned ceiling arcs over the space where evangelical meetings once thundered, burlesque shows capered, and cinemagoers stared goggle-eyed at Birth of a Nation.

The stage house is gone now, as is the floor. From the detritus-strewn balcony, one misstep could mean a 40-foot tumble into the pit below. Clambering about the dimly lit hall is rather like climbing into a bombed-out cathedral: The ruin is picturesque as well as pervasive.

When Artspace's experts look at the venerable theater, they see nothing but potential. The array of balconies, points out vice president William Law, means that even the seats farthest from the stage have an unobstructed view. Although the interior is nearly devoid of ornamentation--"It was never a gilded lady," Law says--the superior sightlines and turn-of-the-century ambiance make the 900-seat auditorium ideal for dance performances.

In theory, at least, the theater is a perfect fit for Artspace's métier. The organization was founded in 1979 by the city-instituted Minneapolis Arts Commission as an advocate for artists displaced by the gentrification of the Warehouse District; it has since become a gentrifying force in its own right, with $42 million in real estate held solely or in partnership. Artspace's specialty, according to a 1999 annual report, is rehabbing old industrial buildings in "diverse and economically challenged neighborhoods" as living/studio spaces. Its list of successes includes the Tilsner and Northern Warehouse buildings in St. Paul's Lowertown; the Hennepin Center for the Arts and the Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art in the Warehouse District; and the Calhoun building in the Lyn-Lake area of south Minneapolis. The latter--the site, incidentally, of a well-publicized 1999 raid on a meth lab run by an enterprising tenant--is the only Artspace project developed without public or private subsidy.

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