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Preservation


Silver Spring's Flower Theatre could bloom once again

For decades, the Flower Theatre in Silver Spring's Long Branch neighborhood entertained generations of residents eager to see the latest films. In recent years, however, the Art Deco-style movie house has sat vacant and may need substantial funding to be usable again.


The Flower Theatre today. Photo from Google Street View.

How can we bring the Flower Theatre back to life? On Saturday, August 4 from 10-1, we'll explore this at a community charrette, or idea-generating workshop, hosted by Fenton Street Market, a marketplace of local vendors in downtown Silver Spring.

How did the theater become vacant, and why hasn't it been filled yet? What do you think should happen with the space?

Theater declined amid neighborhood changes

Located on Flower Avenue just north of Piney Branch Road, the Flower Theatre opened in February 1950 and was built by the K-B Organization, a regional chain of movie houses. It was designed by architects John Jacob Zink and Frederick L.W. Moehle, also responsible for a number of well-loved local theaters, like the Uptown in Washington and the Senator in Baltimore.

The first film shown at the 800-seat theater was "Great Lover" starring Bob Hope, and audiences could enter to win a new Plymouth. Later that year, the Flower appeared on the cover of Boxoffice magazine in an issue on "The Modern Theatre."


Inside the Flower Theatre in 1950. Photo from Boxoffice magazine.

The surrounding Long Branch neighborhood was changing, however. By the 1970s, it had become Montgomery County's "melting pot," home to immigrants from around the world. However, blight and disinvestment afflicted the neighborhood, affecting the Flower Theatre's fortunes.

K-B closed the Flower and sold it in 1979, the same year that Flower Avenue was described by residents as "quite seedy" and "the trashiest neighborhood in Montgomery County" in a Washington Post article. Throughout the 1980's, the theater changed hands twice as new operators divided the single auditorium into two screens, added two more screens, and converted it to a discount movie house.

After closing again in 1996, a local entrepreneur bought the Flower and tried to turn it into a cultural arts center before his plans fell through. More recently, a Spanish-language church occupied the building before moving out in 2008. The theater has been vacant ever since.

New ideas flower

During that time, people have been dreaming of what they'd do with the Flower Theatre. Last month, Long Branch resident Amanda Hurley reached out to her neighbors, who had lots of ideas for the space. Suggestions included turning it into a venue for "fun exercise activities," a community meeting hall, or an indoor flea market.

One of my favorite proposals is repurposing the Flower as a café and bookstore, like Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store, also a former theater. Not surprisingly, many folks recommended returning it to a movie theater showing second-run or foreign-language films, in a nod to the area's Spanish-speaking population.

However, any reuse of the Flower Theatre could be very expensive. "If someone wanted to come and use it now for retail, for theater, or anything else ... it would need a complete gut renovation to bring it up to code," says Greg Fernebok of Harvey Property Management Company, who owns the theater and the adjacent shopping center along Flower Avenue.

Fernebok estimates it would take over $600,000 to make the space usable again, which includes installing fire alarms and sprinklers, building ADA-complaint restrooms, and replacing the roof, among other improvements. And if the county designates the building as historic, there may be strict requirements for how it's restored.

Unable to find a tenant willing to pay for those improvements, Fernebok has basically left the building alone. "It makes more sense to leave it in the condition it's in and keep it safe," he says.

That said, it's unclear what the theater's condition is, as very few people have been inside since it closed. Judging from this 2008 photo of the lobby, the space looks habitable, though most of the original décor is gone.


The Flower Theatre in 1962. Photo from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Changes make rebirth possible

There remains a lot of potential for the Flower, however. The surrounding shopping center is completely leased and hasn't had a vacancy in 20 years, suggesting that there's demand for more retail space in the area.

Meanwhile, the area is becoming more affluent. Households within one mile of the Flower Theatre have a median income of $73,000 a year, while those living within five miles have a median income of $93,000. Eventually, the Purple Line could stop around the corner from the theatre, drawing additional visitors and investment to the neighborhood.

Though bringing the Flower back to life will be challenging, all the changes in store for Long Branch make now a great time to start exploring how to do it. The goal of our charrette is to create an "inventory" of community wants and needs and explore how the Flower Theatre could be repurposed to meet them, whether in the short term or in the future. We've also invited a "staff" of local architects, planners and community leaders to offer their thoughts and expertise.

Like in previous charrettes at Fenton Street Market, we'll have a big tent with tables, chairs and lots of markers. You'll be able to stop in throughout the day to offer your perspective and suggestions. Hopefully, this will be the first of several charrettes throughout the summer and fall tackling different disused spaces around Silver Spring.

If you'd like to participate, come out to Fenton Street Market on Saturday, August 4 from 10 am to 1 pm. The market is located in Veterans Plaza at the corner of Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring. For more information, or if you'd like to participate on our staff, you can email me at danreed at ggwash.org.

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

Comments

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I live right down the street from the Flower and it would be wonderful to be within walking distance to a vibrant community. However, the entire area would need serious investment and redevelopment.

Could it "start" with the theater? Possibly. But I think a serious tenant would want a viable neighborhood where people would want to hangout rather than a business stuck between a laundromat and a liquor store.

by Michael on Jul 25, 2012 12:44 pm • linkreport

With a another recession coming very soon, the best thing to do with that space is nothing.

by davidj on Jul 25, 2012 12:45 pm • linkreport

Something about this post seems SO familiar, but I just can't place it. Note that the theater originally had 1,016 seats, not 800.

by Sligo on Jul 25, 2012 1:26 pm • linkreport

Interesting that uber-"walkable" Silver Spring has an Art Deco theatre that is languishing while Angelika Film Center has decided to locate its first DC-area screens in the new Mosaic District in Merrifield, where there will be plenty of parking available. Guess they didn't get Dan Reid's memo on what people want these days.

by Dan on Jul 25, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

"Interesting that uber-"walkable" Silver Spring has an Art Deco theatre that is languishing while Angelika Film Center has decided to locate its first DC-area screens in the new Mosaic District in Merrifield, where there will be plenty of parking available. Guess they didn't get Dan Reid's memo on what people want these days."

mosaic district is advertising as a new urban walkable district with access to the nearby Dunn Loring Metro station. Seems like someone did not get the memo from Mosaic.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 25, 2012 2:39 pm • linkreport

"Interesting that uber-'walkable' Silver Spring has an Art Deco theatre that is languishing"

I take it you are not referring to the Art Deco Theatre in walkable DOWNTOWN Silver Spring, the AFI Silver, which is not languishing at all. The Flower Theatre is not downtown.

by Sligo on Jul 25, 2012 2:43 pm • linkreport

Thank you for crediting the Planning Department for the historic exterior photo in your post. The original is located in American University's Shannon & Luchs collection. Best known for their Connecticut Avenue Park & Shop in Cleveland Park, Shannon & Luchs pioneered the park and shop concept. Fred S. Kogod engaged S&L for his Flower Shopping Center, a park and shop which includes the theater. You can find more historic photos and info in our research form posted here:
http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/historic/flowertheatershoppingcenter/documents/1TextFlowerShoppingCenterMIHP12-2011.pdf

by Clare Lise Kelly on Jul 25, 2012 2:54 pm • linkreport

@Sligo

I'm sorry, when I was doing my research on the Flower Theatre I never found your post, though it's very useful and I encourage anyone reading this post to look at it as well.

I hope I'll see you at the charrette next week!

by dan reed! on Jul 25, 2012 3:12 pm • linkreport

That seems highly improbable, as it's the second Google result for "Flower Theatre" (and the first for "Flower Theater"), but I'll take your word for it.

by Sligo on Jul 25, 2012 3:28 pm • linkreport

Cinema & Drafthouse? :)

by grumpy on Jul 25, 2012 6:11 pm • linkreport

Those who are interested in how this might fit in with the redevelopment of the whole neighborhood (Long Branch) might be interested in the county's sector plan:

http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/community/longbranch/documents/LongBranchHandout2012.pdf

There are going to be some big changes in the area that I expect to accelerate once the Purple Line really does secure federal funding (and will begin even before it is built). Michael above points out that the tenant mix is not very upscale at the moment, but already we saw the landlord across the street apparently hike the rent on the Payless, forcing them (and the import place, too?) to leave; it will be interesting to see what comes in there. I am afraid anybody thinking "bookstore" here has not been keeping up with the reality of that niche. *Maybe* a place like Second Story Books could be convinced to relocate their Rockville warehouse here, but that strikes me as unlikely. Given its extreme proximity to the future Arliss St. purple line station, my best guess is that somebody redevelops the block into apartments/condos over retail, keeping the historic facade. Facadism isn't my favorite approach, but it's easy to see how to make that approach work here. The parking lot for the complex is, of course, easily horrible enough for a Trader Joe's. :-)

by Justafed on Jul 28, 2012 8:57 am • linkreport

Interesting Post Dan, Some serious deep thinking would have to go into this. It would have to be something that would draw people over that way, something that is NOT located in DTSS, that was such a draw that people would go out of their way to go there. It is hard to think of something that would be "successful" in that spot. It would have to be something "different" and "pretty amazing" ?

by Debbie Cook on Aug 7, 2012 6:14 am • linkreport

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