The real historic preservation lesson from DC's Uptown Theater is about legal protections and remedies, not activism
Update: Washingtonian Magazine has a nice feature, "You’ll Feel Nostalgic Looking At These DC Theaters That Have Held Onto Their Old Look," on Washington area cinemas that have mostly kept their legacy signage in some way, although most of the buildings have been converted to other uses.
To protect buildings at the local level, local laws, regulations, and designations are required. Most people don't understand that a property listed on "the National Register of Historic Places" only protects a building vis a vis "federal undertakings."
Only if a "local" project were funded by the federal government would it be subject to the National Historic Preservation Act.
In "Without remedies there's nothing you can do: historic preservation in Chicago and DC" and "Historic Preservation Tuesday: Saving buildings vs. the right to petition to redress grievances," I argued that when historic preservation efforts are successful mostly it is because communities have already put into place legal processes for nominating, landmarking, and protecting buildings.
Uptown Theater at night, Cleveland Park, Washington, DC, 2008. (Currently the W is unlit.)
Therefore, when I first saw the media coverage of the Uptown Theater issue ("AMC Backs Off Plan To Replace Uptown Theater Sign On Historic D.C. Theater," WAMU/NPR; "For a few days, a neon sign and a corporation’s failed plan united Cleveland Park residents," Washington Post), I thought:
"What's the big deal?, the building is in a historic district/landmarked so it's got lots of protections and the likelihood of HPO/HPRB approving such changes is infinitesimal."
The articles focused on how engaged residents organized and challenged the proposal by AMC Theatres to "de-localize" the signage on the theater and replace it with AMC's corporate logos, which is what they do at all their cinemas, with AMC the primary identifier, and the name of the theater as the secondary identifier.
The narrative of engaged citizens changing the course of history is captured in the headline of the story on WUSA-TV/Channel 9, "DC community saves vintage Uptown Theater sign."
From the Post article:
AMC filed a plan Friday with the D.C. State Historic Preservation Office seeking permission to change the sign to read “AMC” instead of “Uptown.” When word of the proposal got out, residents lit up a community email group and flooded the Cleveland Park Historical Society with calls voicing their disapproval.This is more an example of existing protections and remedies being employed to success, which has little to do with "activism." It's about building regulations and laws.
AMC said Monday that it was withdrawing the plans.
“In response to community feedback, AMC will maintain the Uptown signage, with an upgrade to LED lighting for better energy efficiency and to ensure the sign remains in good working order,” said Ryan Noonan, director of corporate communications at AMC Theatres. “We appreciate the passion and feedback from the community, and look forward to serving moviegoers at AMC Uptown 1 for years to come.”
It's pretty likely that HPO told AMC there was no chance the change would be approved. Although it has to be acknowledged that the evident activism was a bonus, because HPO could point to that as a further confirmation that the likely decision would have widespread support.
Sure citizen activation matters, but in this case and in areas that are historically designated, it's less of an issue, because protection is legal and the default position of the local government.
Note that vigilance is still required, because it's not like the city has inspectors out every day checking on the status of each building.
Even though AMC's quick reaction seemingly is in response to an engaged and "enraged" citizenry, it would be interesting to see their response if the building had not been landmarked, a landmark nomination had not been filed, and the community relied on activism to change the course of action on the part of the building owner.
More often than not, activism not backed up by existing protections fails. See "Preservation advocacy may be more successful when companies are vulnerable to public pressure: Baltimore County vs. Fairfax County, Virginia vs. Robbinsdale, Minnesota."
In DC, for buildings not protected there is only one remedy, or at least an interim measure: filing a historic landmark nomination, which stays any changes to a building, pending the hearing of the application.
If the nomination is approved, untoward changes won't go through. If not approved the changes can't be stopped.
And for this to work, buildings have to rise to the criteria by which nominations are approved. This is pretty easy for commercial buildings, but difficult for the average house.
That's why there is the alternative approach of creating a historic district, but those applications don't stay changes to buildings in the interim (see "Historic Preservation Tuesday: 16 Grant Circle and the landscape of DC's avenues and circles as an element of the city's identity" and "Grant Circle Historic District nomination").
We filed a historic landmark application in 2007/2008 when CVS wanted to change the marquee of the former Newton Theater in Brookland, on 12th Street NE.
The marquee that is on the building is similar but not exactly the same as the original. No interior details have been retained.
It was a fluke that a local resident learned that CVS was initiating changes. The property owner didn't care so long as CVS kept paying rent.
In response, a landmark nomination was filed by the Brookland CDC (at the time I was the Main Street program manager there)--recognizing that the likelihood of the building being designated was close to 100%--which stayed any changes in the interim.
The building was landmarked, and the attempt to change the marquee was dropped.
We created remedies by getting the building landmarked.
Could activism have changed the plans of CVS, a national retail chain based in Rhode Island?
Newton Theater exterior, 1969. Photo by Robert K. Headley.
I don't think so. Activism hasn't ever worked with CVS getting them to not take over old theater buildings and gut the interiors and make them over as drug stores (like with the Newton in Brookland, the MacArthur in the Palisades, and the Biograph Theatre in Georgetown).
I don't think it would have worked with AMC either. At least it didn't with the Empire Theatre on 42nd Street in Times Square.
As I have said/written for years, without remedies the likelihood of success for preservation efforts for individual buildings and sites is minimal--unless the building/site rises to the level of a landmark so that the likelihood of success in filing a nomination is high and the building is designated.
Plus, the laws have to be strong. DC has about the strongest local historic preservation law in the US, stronger even than NYC's. Here, elected officials don't have the last word on approving or removing historic designations or approving development plans for the buildings. By contrast, in most other jurisdictions, the final approval comes from the Executive/Legislative Branches.
So rather than pat ourselves on the backs for achieving a foreordained, but fortunately positive outcome, the focus ought to be on expanding the areas that are covered by remedies (i.e., creating historic districts) and extending the range of the laws as needed, such as for special character requirements on major avenues, protection of retail uses on ground floors in eligible for designation commercial districts, design requirements for popups, localized signage vs. corporate branded signage, design review and demolition protection for buildings that are eligible for designation, etc.