As a photographer, I have recently been inspired while looking through pictures of the beautiful but crumbling remnants of once great buildings, specifically in the Detroit area. There is something about imagining the vibrant life that once lived within their walls and wondering at the transient nature of everything on this earth. There is something both profound and sad about them, but also something beautiful in the life they continue to live in the minds of the creative, and I don’t just mean through photography.
Where some see these buildings as failures of times past, enterprising men and women can see creative and new uses for these unique structures. Looking at pictures of old theaters, I was surprised to find the clever ways in which they were re-imagined so as to escape the wrecking ball. One old movie palace in Brooklyn, N.Y., which had been closed for 40 years and was in the process of falling apart, is being adapted so as to become a state-of-the-art K-8 charter school run by a nonprofit group called Ascend Learning. It will also be used as retail space. Though there is much need for renovations, the building will retain much of its historical character.
The United Artists Theater in Los Angeles is another theater which has found a different use after closing the curtains; it is owned by the University Cathedral and has been used as a church for years.
Turning back to Detroit, the Michigan Theatre experienced an interestingly ironic fate. Built over the small garage where Henry Ford built his first automobile, the theatre was open for 50 years before being turned into a parking garage. Though this three-level, 160-space garage required the mezzanine, balcony and staircase to be taken down, much of the architecture remains intact. Remaining pieces include the four-story lobby, ticket booth, the proscenium arch and even part of the red curtain. This unique tourist attraction has played roles in movies like “The Island” and in Eminem’s music video “Lose Yourself,” as well as providing much needed parking space for the surrounding area.
Theatres are not the only places that can have a second chance at life. London’s Docklands were converted into condominiums and New York’s emptied tool shops ended up providing some of the city’s most coveted office space. There are people who can look at a dying lot and find a canvass waiting to be filled. Given free reign, entrepreneurs and visionaries may look at something that is crumbling and use their creativity to turn a failure into a success. Never underestimate the innovative mind.