How the Huntridge Learns

It is OK for a civic monument to evolve into just another building?

While the fate of the Huntridge Theater has been in question for at least a decade, the most recent squabble over what constitutes an appropriate use of the gutted and dilapidated landmark illustrates an important point: Buildings change. Structures are not finished when they are built; they’re just getting started. The ones that evolve and adapt to the needs of people who use them are eventually integrated into a city’s identity; those that don’t are swept away.

In January, the Las Vegas Planning Commission voted 7-0 against a request by the Huntridge’s owners to put a second-hand store on the site. At the heart of the commission’s argument was the idea that the future of the Huntridge Theater should be as a theater.

But the Huntridge hasn’t been a theater for years. Built in 1944 in the streamline moderne style, the Huntridge was a movie theater for 40 years until suburban multiplexes made it unprofitable. In the early 1990s it began a second life as an indie music venue that lasted about 10 years. When that proved unprofitable, part of it became retail space—Big’s Furniture—and most of the building was left empty. The building’s owners saw the second-hand store as a way to keep the building relevant. It’s zoned C-2 for general commercial use, so it could be many other things: a store, office space, a club, etc. But nearby residents want the Huntridge to be something it will probably never be again, a vision the owner doesn’t share.

It is protected as a historic site until 2017, but then the state covenants preventing its destruction expire. It’s an odd notion, that historic protections can expire, but so be it—the fact is that if the building can’t be repurposed, it will probably be razed. In short, it must learn or die.

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The idea that structures evolve is the basis of an excellent book (and BBC series viewable on YouTube) by Stewart Brand called How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. If the author’s name is familiar, you’re probably old enough to remember Brand as the cultural theorist behind the Whole Earth Catalog. Since the late 1960s, Brand has been writing about how we can remake the world on a more human scale, whether the topic at hand is business, culture or architecture.

Brand believes the worst kinds of buildings are those that can’t or don’t adapt to the needs of people who use them. Such “monuments” are often architectural showcases built for a purpose—a library, for instance, or a Strip casino. The people who build them don’t think hard enough about how they’ll be used the day after they are complete, let alone three decades later. “All buildings are predictions,” Brand says. “All predictions are wrong.”

Then there are the buildings he calls “low road.” These are the almost invisible warehouses, factories, shacks, mobile homes, tract houses, strip malls and other boxes put up cheap and fast. Low-road buildings are where the real after-the-fact creativity takes place because nobody cares what occupants do to them once they’re finished. Partition them into little pieces, turn them into artists’ space, refashion a big-box store into a school, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that they are inexpensive to occupy and offer space to experiment.

The low road is where revitalization and gentrification begin, Brand writes. A typical cycle goes something like this: Artists move in because the rent is cheap, independent business such as coffee shops and nightclubs follow, a neighborhood becomes fashionable and exciting, developers move in to build live/work studios and apartments for the relatively wealthy, goodbye artists. The process happens again and again: Seattle’s Belltown, Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., etc.

The Huntridge exists somewhere between “monument” and “low road”—the city has traditionally thought of it as a monument, but it is no longer the building it once was. Both the culture surrounding it and the physical plant itself have changed. It was substantially rebuilt after its aging roof collapsed in 1995. And over the years, the interior has been stripped of seats, the once-grand murals removed and the auditorium floor leveled. Outside, the iconic 75-foot tower and neon sign still stands—a source of neighborhood identity in a town short on it—but the sign is dark, and the paint is chipped and fading.

So the theater should be seen as a classic low-road opportunity—it’s no longer suited for its original purpose, but it’s cheap and malleable. It should be ready for Phase 4, whatever that may be. The city’s planning department thought as much when it recommended approving the second-hand store, saying it was “appropriate for the site and can be conducted in a manner that is harmonious and compatible with surrounding uses.” But the planning department (composed of experts) can only pass its advice along to the planning commission (composed of political appointees). The commission, in turn, passes its decisions along to the City Council, which ultimately makes the call. (The Council was to discuss the issue Feb. 15, after Vegas Seven went to press.)

Residents in the Huntridge neighborhood didn’t agree with the planning department’s notion that buildings can learn. They favor skipping a few steps along the road to gentrification and going right to upscale, boutique-commercial stage. And returning the Huntridge to its original purpose seemed a good way to get there.

“Personally, what we would like to see is it returned to its original glory and it be used as a theater again,” says area real estate agent “Downtown” Steve Franklin.

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It’s a fine vision; the problem is that it’s not feasible. The Huntridge can turn back into a glorious theater just as soon as someone comes up with several million dollars to sink into a dilapidated venue in a sketchy neighborhood with a history of failed attempts as a theater.

Ironically, the state has already spent $1.6 million to keep the building from falling down completely, taxpayer money the city’s planning commission now feels obligated to honor by ensuring any future use is consistent with the past. “We can’t just let the taxpayer’s investment be ignored,” commission member Glenn Trowbridge says. “That wasn’t done to let it be used for some other purpose.” In other words, the same funds used to preserve the Huntridge will likely lead to its demise when the state’s restrictions on its use expire in 2017.

And so we arrive at a stalemate. If the Huntridge can’t evolve, it won’t survive. And it can’t evolve if the city and its neighbors won’t let it. It could be many things, but in the end it will probably be gone.