Trader Joe's to move into Alabama Theatre

Preservationists are hopeful the exterior of what was once the Alabama Theatre will remain intact, but they have concerns about the building's art deco interior.

September 21, 2011 4:32:50 PM PDT
One of Houston's best-known historic buildings could soon become a specialty grocery store. We told you earlier this week Trader Joe's is interested in the historic Alabama Theatre.

It's been nearly 25 years since movies were last seen at the Alabama Theatre, and two years since the space was even leased. Fans of this art deco treasure wanted something similar to the Alamo Draft House to go into the location to carry on the movie tradition, but the pending new tenant also has a huge following.

A building, like a home, needs an occupant to bring it to life, and in recent years the Alabama Theatre has been without one, which has made it vulnerable to remodeling and losing its vintage style. It's been on preservationists' radar for some time.

"When the Bookstop came in here, that was when we first were all put on alert that this was going to really be something to be concerned about," said preservationist Lawrence Chapman.

The Bookstop closed two years ago. After that a national office supply chain was interested in the space, which might have brought major changes to the building.

But now Trader Joe's, a popular supermarket chain based in California, has been in talks with Weingarten realty about the Alabama and that's good news for the Houston Preservation Alliance.

"Obviously we're really, really happy about this possibility," said David Bush with the Houston Preservation Alliance.

That's because the facade is expected to be preserved. In historic buildings the value is as much on the inside as the exterior. Vintage photos show how the Alabama appeared when it was still showing movies. The seats and the concession stands were all removed when it became a Bookstop.

The stage remains and so does the balcony. Based on what Trader Joe's had done in other markets in other old buildings, the thought is that the redesign may include some of those features.

"When I saw what Trader Joe's has done in other historic buildings, I started feeling much, much better about it," Bush said.

About the only thing expected to change on the exterior of the building is the removal of the name Alabama Theatre. Some of the artist's rendering show the name of Trader Joe's taking its place.

The planning commission will vote on the change on Thursday afternoon. The historical committee has recommended the permit's approval.

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