July 22, 2006
RIP, River Oaks Theater?

To put it bluntly, this would suck.

Three Houston landmarks, including the Landmark River Oaks Theatre and the Bookstop in the former Alabama Theater, have been declared endangered by the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.

The alliance has learned, spokesman David Bush said Friday, that two buildings in the River Oaks Shopping Center could face demolition within two years.


The GHPA has repeatedly tried to discuss the buildings with Weingarten Realty but has been rebuffed, Bush said.

But a half-dozen tenants of the River Oaks Shopping Center told the Houston Chronicle that a Weingarten's leasing agent informed them of plans to raze parts of the historic shopping center.

The first domino to fall, they said, would be the River Oaks Shopping Center building at the northeast corner of Shepherd and West Gray. Erected in 1937, the curved art deco building is "of national significance," architecture historian Stephen Fox said.


Opened in 1939, the River Oaks is Houston's oldest functioning movie theater.

Bill Banowsky, CEO of Landmark Theatres, wrote in an e-mail that Landmark is "100 percent committed to the River Oaks Theatre," and that Landmark recently signed a lease extension. Landmark spokeswoman Melissa Raddatz would not say how long that lease lasts.

Celeste Williams, a lecturer at the University of Houston's Gerald D. Hines School of Architecture, has studied Houston's earliest movie theaters extensively, and notes that in many cities the historic buildings still function either as movie theaters or auditoriums.

"There aren't many buildings I'd lie down in front of bulldozers to save," she said. "The River Oaks theater is one of them."

I'd be willing to lie down next to her. One needs to be able to take Houston's hands-off management of historic buildings with a certain air of resignation, but one also needs to draw the line somewhere. Especially if this is the second half of this one-two punch:

In addition to the two segments of the River Oaks center, the preservation alliance placed the art deco Alabama Shepherd Shopping Center on its endangered list because of fears that Barnes & Noble would close the Bookstop if it built in River Oaks. Weingarten also controls The Alabama Center.

Responding to questions via e-mail, Barnes & Noble Inc. spokeswoman Carol Brown wrote that the company had "made no announcement of plans to build in the River Oaks Shopping Center." Brown wouldn't say whether such plans existed.

She also said the chain had no "immediate" plans to move from the Bookstop location.

In 1989, Bookstop won national attention for its creative preservation of the Alabama movie theater, built in 1939. Nine years later, Barnes & Noble bought the Bookstop chain.

As the story notes, a mega B&N is supposedly planned for the River Oaks center across the street from the theater, where the Black Eyed Pea now stands. If that were to be built, it would be hard to see how the Bookstop would continue to be viable, as it's about a mile away from there.

I have very fond memories of both places, and that Bookstop has gotten a lot of business from me over the years. I've been a bit worried about the overall health of the Alabama Center since Cactus Records closed. Its location is a bit of a problem, since the front entrance is on Shepherd, and shoppers approaching it on the northbound side have to make a nasty unprotected left turn to get in, which often snarls traffic on Shepherd. I've seen quite a few other businesses on Shepherd in that general vicinity come and go, and I've always been convinced that the pain-in-the-butt factor of making lefts from that street into their parking lots contributed to many a demise. I guess I figured that if the Alabama Bookstop had made it this long, it was immune to that. Looks like there may be other forces at work against them here.

Houston's historic preservation laws are among the weakest in the country, and the vast majority of the city's historic buildings can be destroyed without even a waiting period for public comment.

Preservationists have responded by mounting intelligence operations to ferret out plans to raze historic buildings.

Those "cloak-and-dagger operations," Bush said, "are sad, but it's what we've got to do if we're going to draw public attention before the bulldozers arrive."

I hope in these cases their paranoia is unfounded. Please think of the bigger picture here, Weingarten Realty.

UPDATE: Houstonist has more. Given all that I've said on the subject of petitions, online and otherwise, it's with a certain amount of gingerness that I note they're sponsoring an online petition to let Weingarten Realty know what kind of opposition exists to this plan. Take whatever action you deem appropriate, bearing in mind that the Houstonist post has contact info for Weingarten if you prefer a more direct approach.

UPDATE: More here.

UPDATE: Bayou City History, a great resource for what Houston used to be like, joins in with a couple of cool old pictures.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 22, 2006 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack

I haven't been in River Oaks Theater, but we have been to Bookstop. If it wasn't so far from where we lived in Houston, I'd have been there a lot more. It's a fabulous store and it'd be a shame to see it go away.

Posted by: Sue on July 23, 2006 7:30 AM

River Oaks Theatre should not go! It needs to be tagged as a historic landmark...it brings so much more culture and beauty to Houston.

Posted by: Michelle Segura on July 25, 2006 10:19 PM

These are works of art which deserve preservation. Too much of this city's history has been destroyed for progress,ie:the almighty dollar. The realtor can either be a hero or a bum. Let's hope he is the former whom we can then all praise for his stewardship.

Posted by: Fielding and Trish Smith on July 25, 2006 10:35 PM

Don't destroy the past. Save it, and show it to your kids. I live in New York City and we've lost too many old buildings, but some are being saved. What a joy it is to see these restored treasures.

Posted by: Don Wagner on August 12, 2006 2:41 PM

The link to the original post about this on my site has changed to the following:



Posted by: Jeff on October 28, 2006 1:09 AM