There Goes the Neighborhood

Can an art gallery in a rehabilitated theater change the picture for East Franklin Avenue?

The New Franklin Theater has always had potential; on this everyone agrees. Since it was targeted for redevelopment near the beginning of the last decade, this building at 1021 E. Franklin Ave. has served as a repository for a bounty of community schemes, and a bushel of money. Yet only when the onetime movie theater reopened as Franklin Art Works in November of last year did anyone get a close look at the actual edifice that had long absorbed their hopes.

As part of the renovation that began in May 1999, workers uncovered a graceful arched window with a 29-foot stained-glass panel, and a sculpted brick façade. A gilded plaster frame emerged that had once encircled the original movie screen; according to fashion, this had been applied in reflective paint directly on the wall. And spots of the ornamental art-deco stencil work remained on the walls of the theater's main auditorium. "Back then, they just covered up things," says Tim Peterson, the director and sole employee of Franklin Art Works, the gallery that now fills this rehabilitated structure. "And they just shoved all kinds of junk in the intervening space. This place was a mess--you would not believe what we found here....We even found two of the original seats from the theater, made of mahogany and cast iron, shoved up into the false ceiling. They came crashing down when we were working--but still, there they were."

The arrival of Franklin Art Works in the oft-beleaguered Phillips neighborhood may not have represented quite the same level of serendipity as those falling seats: Roughly $900,000 has been spent by various agencies and institutions to get the theater in shape and its tenant up and running. But the fact that the true nature of the New Franklin has now revealed itself from behind decades of neglect does not mean that the project has filled its potential. Rather, neighborhood people seem to have invested this gallery with the mission of buoying a stretch of road that has defied other development efforts. The philosophy behind the creation of Franklin Art Works seems both simple and intriguing: Where public money goes into art, art will attract more money.

Curator of neighborhood ambitions Tim Peterson outside Franklin Art Works
Tony Nelson
Curator of neighborhood ambitions Tim Peterson outside Franklin Art Works

Though expectations for this one building may seem high, the New Franklin was also a focal point for the neighborhood upon its completion in 1916, in the neighborhood that was then known as Southside (Phillips became its name in the 1960s). At the time the theater was built, Southside was home to a wide range of Minneapolitans. On its west side lived some of the city's wealthiest families, including the Pillsburys, Washburns, and Peaveys. On its east side, drawn by the proximity to the Southtown railyard, and streetcar access to the rest of the city, lived a constantly changing working-class immigrant community: Southern-born blacks; Scandinavians; Germans; Irish; and Jews. Many of the homes of these people were without electricity, running water, or plumbing at the time the New Franklin was built. The theater itself, however, was a splendid neighborhood refuge, said to be the largest movie house of its kind west of Chicago.

The golden age for the New Franklin Theater proved short-lived. By the 1930s the neighborhood had begun to see a significant decline in its living standard. The encroachment of the automobile on city planning began to necessitate a widening of roadways and the eventual dismantling of the cable car. (This, long before the construction of I-35W and I-94 isolated the area and decimated its pedestrian traffic.) Furthermore, the Great Depression hit the working-class families in the area extremely hard, and large swaths of the region became, as one city planning report called it, "a rooming-house district" of itinerant workers who could not afford to keep their homes. In 1934 more than 25 percent of neighborhood residents were unemployed, 75 percent of the houses were rented, and 20 percent of the buildings were considered uninhabitable.

Remarkably, those statistics are not much different today. One thing that changed in the long interim, though, is that the New Franklin became one of Phillips's many distressed properties. Around 1970, declining commercial traffic drove the theater to shutter its doors, and in 1977 it reopened as a three-screen porn-plex. When owner Ferris Alexander was imprisoned on obscenity, tax-evasion, and racketeering charges in 1990, the New Franklin entered a decade of intermittent hibernation. In 1992 the New Franklin, then just another aging and empty building on a run-down block, was purchased by the MCDA at the behest of a neighborhood group called the People of Phillips (PoP), and it was set aside for eventual renovation. In time, several hundred thousand dollars of Minneapolis Community Development Agency money was squandered in administrative costs and planning, but no restoration occurred.

Though the MCDA talked of scrapping the building and starting over, eventually the Neighborhood Revitalization Program and other funders teamed with a secessionist neighborhood group calling itself Ventura Village, allocating $700,000 to restore the theater. The New Franklin Cultural Center Inc. hired Tim Peterson, age 35, to program the space. Though he'd worked as an assistant curator at the Walker and at Los Angeles's Lannan Foundation for some 11 years, Peterson could hardly have anticipated the difficulty of the project before him. "The task has been tremendously daunting," says the diminutive and
pale administrator.

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