Remember the Terrace: A Lesson in Advocacy
By Pete Richie
This article was originally published on Docomomo US/Minnesota's website January 30, 2017
The Terrace Theatre in Robbinsdale, Minnesota opened on May 25th, 1951. The Mid-Century Modern building designed by the architectural firm of Liebenberg & Kaplan, for movie house owners, Sydney and William Volk, won national acclaim from newspapers, magazines, and industry publications. The August 4th, 1951 issue of Box Office Magazine featured the Terrace on the cover and contained a five page, illustrated article that praised the Terrace as “The Gem of the Lakes.”
The Volk brothers spared no expense in the construction of their flagship theater. Inside the massive auditorium, 1299 soft cushioned seats faced a 26-foot screen. Soundproof rooms on either side of the projection booth could be used for parties or crying babies. Outside the auditorium, a split-level lobby gave way to a sunken den, fireplace, television lounge and enormous, slanted windows.
The Terrace opened just as televisions began appearing in the living rooms of America and the Volks' new movie theater was met with some skepticism. In August of 1951, Business Week reported, "Last May, two Minneapolis movie owners pulled a stunt that made every other exhibitor in the area decide they had blown their lids sky high. In nearby Robbinsdale, Minn., William and Sidney Volk opened a movie theater that had cost them close to $1 million to build. Since television seemed to have put the movie business solidly on the skids, this looked like an elaborate way to commit suicide." Sidney Volk brushed aside criticism and explained to local reporters, that most people had kitchens and refrigerators, but they still went out to eat. The Terrace proved to be a success. The theater attracted movie goers from every corner of the Twin Cities and remained an entertainment destination for almost 50 years.
In 1987 Midcontinental Theater Company purchased the theater. The upper auditorium was divided in half, and turned into two 300 seat screening rooms. Midcontinental debuted the new 3 screen dollar theater under the name Midco Terrace. Neighborhood demographics changed and the theater struggled to survive. After last movie played in 1999, the windows were boarded up, utilities were disconnected, and an out of state property management company with no interest in the neighborhood, or the historic significance of the building, allowed the Terrace to rot on the hillside.
In February of 2012, veteran rocker, Adam Fesenmaier started a Facebook group called, “Save the Terrace.” The group grew and inspired a following of Terrace fans and friends sharing memories. In the summer of 2014, local artist, Alison Nguyen attracted attention to the cause at Robbinsdale’s annual Whiz Bang Days Parade. Her "Terrace 2.0" Float created a media buzz and reminded Whiz Bang crowds that it was time to do something with this amazing historic building. In January 2015, “Save the Terrace” took a few steps off the little screen and into the real world. A group of concerned citizens, working with the Robbinsdale Historical Society, organized themselves as "Save the Historic Terrace Theatre." They met often, drawing on local talents and resources to explore ways to reopen the historic building as a multi-use facility. On social media, the group gained support and grew into a movement. On May 15, 2015, they presented the Robbinsdale City Council with a petition signed by 2161 people, requesting the denial of any permit to demolish the building. Save the Historic Terrace members attended League of Historic American Theatres conferences and partnered locally with the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. Early in 2016 the group obtained a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to write a nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. Save the Historic Terrace had hoped to acquire the building, but failing that the group hoped that historic designation would encourage redevelopment and reuse. The City of Robbinsdale supported their efforts to bring about redevelopment and attract attention to the historic building. Sixty-five years after the theater’s opening, the Mayor and City Council proclaimed May 23, 2016, as Historic Terrace Theatre Day, and recognized the Historic Terrace Theatre’s cultural and architectural importance. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton also signed a proclamation noting that “it is vital to bring attention to historic buildings in order to show support for historic projects.”
Less than two months after the theater's 65th Anniversary, Inland Development Group and the City of Robbinsdale invited the public to an open house and announced that the Terrace would be torn down to make way for a 91,000 foot Hy-Vee grocery store, coffee shop, and gas station. The day after the event David Leonhardt, board chair of The Historic Terrace Theatre, launched an internet petition calling for a nation-wide boycott of Hy-Vee. Over 1000 supporters signed on to the effort. On August 19th, 2016 Hy-Vee announced that they were putting the project on hold. In a prepared statement a Hy-Vee spokeswoman, said, "Over the past several weeks, it’s been difficult to witness the friction our proposed project has caused among Robbinsdale residents. When we enter a community, we want to be respectful of our neighbors’ history, culture and all the things that matter to them. We will continue to assess the situation and keep communication lines open with city officials.” The mayor of Robbinsdale appealed to supporters of the project on social media and asked residents to voice their opinions via an internet survey site. Meanwhile a new citizens group, Friends of the Terrace, was formed to fight the demolition.
On August 23, 2016, the Robbinsdale City Council reiterated their support of the project by approving demolition and Tax Increment Financing to reimburse the developer for costs incurred to make the property ready for construction. The Friends of the Terrace immediately filed a lawsuit under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act. A hearing was scheduled for October 10. A judge was expected to rule on the theater's historic status. The Friends asked the court to delay demolition until the hearing, but on September 19, a judge denied the request, effectively clearing the way for the theater to be demolished. On Thursday, September 22, the Friends asked the court for an emergency injunction to prohibit demolition and grant an expedited hearing, but on Saturday, September 24, a crew arrived intent on tearing down the building before the court could rule. The Friends attorney contacted the chief justice of the Hennepin County Court. She rushed to the scene to halt the demolition, but the demolition crew caved in several lobby windows and punched holes in the upper level as she arrived. After the judge issued an order to stop, the crew began filling the lobby with asphalt from the driveway. The judge's order put the building's demolition on hold until September 26th. The Friend's attorney asked the court for more time, but the request went back to the same judge who had denied the previous extension. He extended the stay on demolition until September 30th, and ordered the Friends to come up with $6.3 million in bonds to indemnify Inland Development Group and the Robbinsdale Economic Development Authority. This amount was forty times more than had ever been required in a case like this. Preservationist raised concerns that the judge was setting a precedent for future cases. The Terrace never got its day in court and demolition began in earnest on October 1st, 2016. A couple months after the Terrace was torn down Hy-Vee announced they were ready to return to the project.
The fight to save the Terrace may serve as a cautionary tale. The historical importance of the building was widely recognized. There was a deep well of support for renovation and reuse, preservationists ran out of options after city officials sided with the interests of an ambitious developer partnered with a multi-billion dollar corporation. The Terrace may have stood a better chance if the building were located down the road in Minneapolis. Historical preservation is an uphill climb in the suburbs where budgets are small and short-sighted priorities revolve around new development. The cultural legacy of Mid-Century Modern architecture is rarely considered in the areas where the style is most prevalent. As the suburban ring ages, the importance of small, local historical societies grows. Although these organizations are tiny, understaffed, and underfunded, when it comes to preservation they are often the first and only line of defense.