June 4, 2015

[Q&A] Historic Theaters Reborn: Gary Martinez of Martinez + Johnson Architecture

Left: Gary Martinez of Martinez+Johnson Architecture. Right: The marquee and facade of the restored Saenger Theatre in New Orleans.

In the upcoming Summer 2015 issue of Preservation, we take a peek behind the curtain at the newly renovated Kings Theatre in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Seized during the 1970s in lieu of back taxes, the historic venue idled vacant until the New York City Economic Development Corporation issued a Request for Proposals to restore it in 2008.

A consortium of groups participated in the project, spearheaded by ACE Theatrical Group and Martinez+Johnson Architecture. Below are excerpts from our wide-ranging conversation with Gary Martinez, president and principal at Martinez+Johnson. [The interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Your firm has a history with ACE Theatrical that predates the Kings Theatre restoration. How did that relationship develop?

The first project we did was the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore. We were working on the Warner Theatre in D.C., but we were brought on very late in the project. After that, I approached [ACE Theatrical] to see if they had projects other than the Warner. It turns out they had been involved with theaters for years and years. They have a very large company that actually produced and promoted Broadway shows.

So I went to Baltimore and looked around and found this historic theater that was for sale at the time, for like $50,000. I got [David Anderson of ACE Theatrical] interested in the project and we spent 5 or 6 years trying to make it happen; we were very successful. We created all the schemes for it. We got it to the point through schematic design to the state put some money into the project and the city put some money into the project.

It became a very real project after that point. We were not selected to move on in that process with the balance of the project, but we had cemented a relationship between me and David, which lasts to this day -- I mean, they’re the operators of the Kings.

The Hippodrome Theatre restoration in Baltimore was one of the initial collaborations between Martinez+Johnson and ACE Theatrical.

What interests you about theaters specifically?

Well, we did the Warner, and once you do one you kind of have the bug. And I really enjoyed working with David; we’ve known each other for like 30 years now and we’ve looked at literally hundreds of these buildings across the country. I’ll tell you the nature of all theaters is that communal experience that we have when we go to them, particularly theaters for live entertainment. They just gather so much meaning for the people in the communities that are around the buildings.

We do office buildings, we do residential buildings, we do a number of different things here in the city -- but there’s not the permanent attachment, not the memories that are made, the people that you’ve seen. Now the historic venues, there are obviously the people that are going to become patrons, but there are also people who were patrons that are still alive, that had their first date in these theaters or met someone’s parents at the theater. So the human story about what went on behind these buildings is so incredibly powerful.

Is there a project where the human story was particularly powerful?

In 2013 we opened the Saenger Theatre down in New Orleans, and it was the first major cultural performance venue to be totally redone and reopen since Hurricane Katrina. Katrina had closed it down and it was almost lost. They found a way to put a program together with ACE, who owned the building and donated it to the city. The city helped bring money to get the project done.

The restored Saenger Theatre in New Orleans had been closed following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

There’s an interesting transformation that goes on as you get closer and closer to the end of the project; the people who are operating it start to come in, they start to take over the building gradually from you. It’s no longer our project, it’s their project.

On opening night the lobby was packed with people who had just been in it for the first time. There were literally people just crying in the lobby. It was so emotional for the city. It was more than just the reopening of the building, it was a statement. This building was going to drive so much traffic to this part of Canal Street that was just emerging from the effects of the storm.

The flood went right to the edge of the French Quarter, and the stage had six feet of water on it. The basement, which is like 25 feet deep, was just filled completely. It took them eight months just to clean out the building and dry it out. They had fans running 24/7, and then it sat there for the next five years.

It was a real struggle to bring the building back. Once it got open though, what makes it important is how people feel about it, how important it is to them, at the end of it all. I’ve never opened an office building where anyone felt that way about it.

How do you balance the desires of preservationists with those of developers?

Well, thousands of these venues were demolished, and even those that we still have continue to be taken down. We spent ten years working in Philadelphia on the Boyd Theatre and the Philadelphia Historical Commission ultimately approved its partial demolition, and so even today we continue to lose these resources.

The facade of the renovated Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.

We can’t necessarily restore the venue in every instance. We did the Howard Theatre here in D.C.; we set up the concept and the building to have a contemporary interior. Michael Marshall came on board with the owner after we started and worked out the details of the interior.

But the fact that it has a contemporary interior and the original exterior fit the owner’s vision. He wanted it to be a theater that spoke to the future. We kept some of the essential elements that were left there, but so much had been lost. The building had been closed such a long time that there was nothing really to save.

So it’s always question of balancing how historic are you about these things and how do you relate to the original building. The architecture of course is just so powerful, just to see the spaces, and layer after layer of texture and detail and pattern. It makes for a very, very powerful statement.

Why was restoring Kings Theatre so important?

Well, it’s the City of New York, but it’s really the Borough of Brooklyn. Marty Markowitz, who was the Borough President -- it had kind of been his focus and goal and political promise to get this venue reopened for the Flatbush community, for Brooklyn. It is the third largest venue in New York City, not counting stadiums and arenas and things like that. It had this amazing potential to just bring a whole new level of regeneration and renewal.

The Kings is southeast of Prospect Park, kind of right in the middle Flatbush Avenue. So this is really a new area to developers, but it’s changing regardless. There are some incredible residential neighborhoods around Flatbush; there’s a very large Haitian community, African-Americans, the original Jewish community is still there, too. So this venue is going to offer entertainment that’s not only the kind of national acts that tour -- whether its music or live theater -- but also local community groups that have an opportunity to participate and use it.

The intricately restored ceiling glows at the Kings Theatre in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

To have something like this and be able to save it, firstly takes a huge amount of foresight, but secondly it’s just something you can leave to the citizens that once again becomes a major force in their lives. I mean Diana Ross opened the venue [on February 3, 2015], and let me tell you, that was amazing.

Can you describe that night?

Let me put it this way: I hadn’t planned on standing for the whole thing, but once an act like that gets up and once she gets started… She came in as we were just going down to our seats, which were down a little closer to the front, and this tornado came out of house right, and I turned and she was making her entrance.

She went down the aisle in front of us and up on the stage, and nobody -- I mean the entire house was filled, people were standing -- nobody sat down until an hour or an hour and a half. She finally went off stage for a bit of a break and people sat down, but when she came back out everybody stood back up again. So, it was really an interesting show, a great show; she did a great job.

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