Preservation isn’t dead and bulldozed over in Houston just yet. A historic movie theater that was built in 1923 is being saved and reborn after years of false starts and idle hopes. Who says minor miracles don’t happen in the land of teardowns and start overs?
The Heights Theater — which stands out on 19th Street with its striking Art Deco movie marquee — has been bought by Edwin Cabaniss, owner of the renowned, revitalized Kessler Theater in Dallas, who envisions a Kessler-style second life for the old theater. That means concerts, community events such as readings for kids, indie film premieres, the occasional wedding, recital and more. Such variety of programming is what drew the attention of The New York Times to the Kessler.
The Heights Theater is in better shape in many ways than Kessler Theater was when Cabaniss took it over. Credit for that should go to Sharon and Gus Kopriva, who purchased the Houston theater in 1987 when it was literally a shell of its original self. The homeless had turned the theater into an encampment of sorts. There wasn’t much roof left, so much of the historic theater was open to the elements. A fire in 1969 devastated the place and gobbled up much of that roof. It took more than a year of renovation in the late 1980s under the Koprivas’ direction to restore the Heights Theater to a usable space.
Now, the Koprivas are passing the baton to Cabaniss with this sale. While the final sales figure hasn’t come out yet, the asking price stood at $1.9 million. For that type of money, your dream needs to be realistic — and it appears to be here.
Cabannis turned the Kessler into arguably Dallas’ most-sought-after small-music venue. Concerts regularly sell out, with acts such as Wanda Jackson, Guy Clark, Jimmie Vaughn, Billy Joe Shaver, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Hayes Carll all hitting that historic stage. It’s easy to imagine a concept like this working in Houston, especially in a Heights neighborhood that’s seen a flood of new restaurants. Part of the Kessler’s charm is how concertgoers break into dance in the aisles — even the people you never expect to see dancing.
Who couldn’t use a little more dancing in their life?
The Houston City Council deemed the Heights Theater a historical landmark this summer, which should help in the 19th Street parking dance. Parking figures to be the reborn theater’s biggest issue — there just isn’t enough of it on 19th Street. But the landmark designation should give the theater some breaks from the typical parking requirements for a venue of this size.
If everything goes according to plan, the Heights Theater could reopen in mid- to late 2016.