Coconut Grove Playhouse Restoration Stuck in Act I

It must have been a grand celebration when the Coconut Grove Theater first opened. In 1927, most buildings in the area didn't have electricity, let alone air conditioning. The three-story baby-blue building, with its Mediterranean columns and lush proscenium archway, was a shining example of architect Richard Kiehnel's celebrated designs. That January 1 evening was publicized as "a distinctive social event dedicating to drama, art, music, and mirth." The spot at Charles Avenue and Ingraham Highway was "one of the finest theaters in the South."

For 79 years, the Coconut Grove Theater, renamed the Coconut Grove Playhouse after a $1 million renovation in 1956, served as a stunning entranceway to the neighborhood and a central hub for the area's social activity. It was internationally renowned as a leading stage. Tennessee Williams and Samuel Becket used it to premiere new works. It's where Urban Cowboy and Fame: The Musical debuted. It was a place of learning and laughter — a prize of the Magic City — and was deemed by the City of Miami a historic landmark in 2005.

Today its doors are closed, its interior vandalized and falling into disrepair. It hasn't been operational since 2006, when mounting debts forced curtains to close permanently. But all of that could change – soonish.

“This may be one of the projects that has more stakeholders than anything we've ever worked on,” says Michael Spring. Today the State of Florida owns the property, while Miami-Dade County and Florida International University share its 99-year lease. As a member of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, Spring is tasked with managing the Coconut Grove Playhouse restoration project.

It has been no quick feat. In 2004, $15 million in public funds were set aside for the job, as well as an additional $5 million soon after. More funds have been set for the construction of parking in the area, and in February 2015, architecture firm Arquitectonica won the bid to spearhead designs. It seemed progress was being made, but more than a year later, people are still scratching their heads.
“We want it to be an asset instead of a liability,” says Olga Granda-Scott, executive director of the Coconut Grove Playhouse Foundation. “Really, our position is to be a watchdog and speak for the community in saying, 'We want this to be is a nucleus of activity, a world class theater again like it was'... We need to let the county and everyone else know that we don't just want to keep designating it things and putting signs on it. We want it restored, we want it opened, and that's what we've wanted since it closed.”

If you're wondering the project's status, all fingers point to Spring. Every day, he wakes up and gets to work on securing the future of the Playhouse. Like many locals, it was a fixture of his adolescence. It's where he saw his first stage production, so naturally, he doesn't take the job lightly.

“There are a lot of people who care passionately about the Coconut Grove Playhouse,” he says. “It's tricky, because you want to get it right. You want to do things that are thoughtful and effective at the same time.”

The original timeline called for Arquitectonica to present design plans by the end of this month, but complications in the inspection and assessment phase pushed things back. For one, the space had to be cleared of hazardous asbestos. For another, the city must deem whether the original 1927 design or the 1956 renovation is the structure historically marked for preservation. Spring says these issues are mostly wrangled, and as it stands, the plan is to unveil designs for public approval by the end of the summer.

It's important to Spring and his colleagues that the design be a subject of public discourse, because it's the greater public that stands to benefit. A revived Coconut Grove Playhouse would be a boon to neighboring retail shops and restaurants, as well as an exciting educational opportunity for district schools. The local historic preservation community has made the project its top priority, and of course, who better to benefit from a thriving playhouse than Miami's somewhat-stifled theatrical community?

“The activity in it is just as important as the building,” Granda-Scott says. “It's not a mausoleum. It's not just some pretty little thing. It needs to be what it was. It needs to be a beacon of artistry and hope for the community, a place for opportunity that people get to work.”

It's settled that Arquitectonica must present two design plans, but debate still reigns about the theater's size. Usually when the Miami-Dade County is tasked with building a public space like a theater or a museum, it designates an operating company to run programming. In this case, the county chose local theater company GableStage, which operates out of a 150-seat theater at the Biltmore Hotel.

GableStage sees comfortable growth opportunity with a plan for a 300-seat theater, but the Playhouse Foundation argues that's not enough to establish the international renown of old. Instead, foundation members argue for a return to the theater's original 1927 setup, with one 150-seat theater and one 700-seater.
“Miami is a place where ideas are built, and I really believe that with every grain. At the same time, I think we shortchange ourselves," says the foundation director. “[The performing arts community] still has the starving-artist or beggar mentality, and I think that's a shame. We need to erase that. Artists need to value themselves more, and we need to rise up just like every other industry has.”

If the issue is money, the foundation is dedicated to delivering a check for 110 percent of the necessary funds to finish both theaters before a shovel enters the ground. Regarding who would run programs in the larger theater, outgoing president of the Arsht Center, Mike Eidson, has suggested award-winning actor Kevin Spacey for the job. Spacey has expressed interest and recently stepped down from a ten-year position at a the Old Vic, a London theater that found itself in similar waters.

Granda-Scott thinks it would be great if a local company found the courage to step up and take on the task of a grander stage, whether it be GableStage or Miami Theater Center or whoever. She's not too worried about that. She figures what's most important is restoring the theaters, and in the three to five years the county has for construction on its timeline, finding an operator would be the easy part.

“Miami right now is a really exciting place where great artists want to be and want to perform,” she says. “There are a lot of [small to midrange theaters] in the community, so it's not really adding, and then it doesn't give us a centralizing force of 'This is the most important stage in Miami-Dade County.' We feel like, to have that status again, you need to be a certain size.”

The Playhouse Foundation is working hard to keep the subject on the county's mind. It's working toward garnering the Coconut Grove Playhouse recognition as a historical site on a national level, and in July, when the City of Miami celebrates its 120th anniversary, it plans to throw a big party around the unveiling of the playhouse's official historical site marker. Granda-Scott is working to implement interim programming in the foundation's name, whether it be performances or educational programs, which she hopes could continue once the playhouse is reopened.

Still, one thing at a time.

“Admittedly, it's going to be a difficult project, but I think our hearts are in the right place,” Spring adds. “We're absolutely committed to making sure that it happens in the best possible way and that, at the same time, we respect people's sense of the history of the place — and the history of their memories of the place too.”
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Kat Bein is a freelance writer and has been described as this publication’s "senior millennial correspondent." She has an impressive, if unhealthy, knowledge of all things pop culture.