When the New World Symphony moved out of its longtime home at Miami Beach’s Lincoln Theatre last year, some fans despaired over what would become of the splendid Art Deco building, one of the undisputed architectural gems of South Beach if not all of Florida.
It turns out they had nothing to worry about.
Confronted with the daunting question of what to do with an obsolete but historic movie house, developer Cliff Stein, whose investment group paid $21.5 million for the building to turn it into a retail center, decided on a gutsy answer:
You meticulously put back the glamorously vaulted Deco auditorium that had been stripped in previous conversions — including a screen for moving pictures. You restore the terrazzo-floored, keystone-walled lobby to within an inch of the 1936 original. You bring back its streamlined exterior to the authentic, metal-edged muscularity of the day it opened.
And you modernize the shell by peeling open the back of the theater to expose its interior to the passing multitudes.
Then you enjoy the spoils as European retailers fall over themselves to pay top-dollar rent to sell their goods inside.
“I saw what it could be, but not everyone did,’’ said Stein, a lawyer and veteran of numerous real-estate projects who readily concedes he had never tackled anything with the scale and complexity of the Lincoln Theatre renovation. “But it’s all come together from the investment standpoint. And when it’s done, it’s going to be a masterpiece.’’
The risky renovation, now nearing completion, has already proved a financial home run for Stein and his investors. It may also set a new high standard for the reuse of historic buildings on the mall and the adjacent Art Deco historic district, where the sometimes clashing needs of commerce and architectural integrity can lead to heated battles and imperfect compromises.
Not this time, delighted city officials say.
“The buzz on this is pretty amazing,’’ said Miami Beach preservation officer Thomas Mooney. “This project has really pushed the envelope in terms of conversion.’’
The $11 million transformation, designed by prominent Miami architect Allan Shulman, is already evident on the corner of Lincoln Road and Pennsylvania Avenue. The streamlined, overhanging marquee is newly covered by stainless-steel banding, a precise reproduction of the original, which had been stripped off decades ago for donation to the nation’s World War II effort. The building’s curving exterior, crowned by a dazzling Deco floral relief, is again a sparkling white after years in mustard yellow.
Along the pedestrian mall, ziggurat-shaped windows that had been blocked off for years have been reopened and reglazed over the entrances to street-level retail spaces that housed a pharmacy and cafeteria in the theater’s glory days. Those doors will again admit customers to new shops and a restaurant.
The most dramatic change comes at the alley at the rear of the building, the theater’s once-blank back wall, which now consists almost entirely of glass two stories in height.
The opening of the building’s rear also connects it to the New World Symphony’s new campus directly behind, boosting another city goal — to begin animating Lincoln Lane, the wide alley that runs along the back of businesses on the mall’s north side, and weaving together the cultural center with the pedestrian mall.
The idea, Shulman said, was to capitalize on the “inherent drama’’ of the theater while maintaining a balance between its commercial and civic character.
“In a way, the energy of Lincoln Road is wrapped all the way around the building,” Shulman said in an email.
Though it won’t open until November, the Lincoln Theatre building — its four interior floors reduced to three to allow a double-height second-story retail space — is already fully leased, Stein said. By the time the Art Basel/Miami Beach art fest opens in early December, the building will be home to a flagship store for affordable-hip Swedish clothing retailer H&M, which is also leasing the upstairs offices — at one time home to the Beach’s most sought-after doctors.
Inside the restored auditorium, fashion videos will play on a giant digital mesh on the rebuilt proscenium that once framed the Lincoln’s movie screen. Shoppers will go backstage for the changing rooms. The old theater balcony, its slope flattened out, remains in place. It has been extended with a platform that, unconnected from side walls and separated from the balcony’s front edge by a transparent floor, will appear to float over the auditorium.
Along the pedestrian mall, the smaller retail bays will be home to a Swatch store, an upscale soap shop and a 100 Montaditos restaurant. Even the entrance hall to the old office building has been leased, to a gelato store.
“You wouldn’t believe the rates retailers are willing to pay,” Stein said, shaking his head in amazement as he led a tour of the ongoing renovation. He declined to be specific, citing confidentiality clauses in the leases.
The Lincoln, designed by Robert E. Collins and noted theater designer Thomas W. Lamb, was the most prestigious of the clutch of movie houses that defined the street as an entertainment district well into the 1950s. But the Lincoln, with nearly 39,000 square feet of auditorium, office and ground-level retail space, was designed to be more than just a movie house, which probably ensured its survival.
So did the strength of its Streamline Moderne architecture and decorative motifs. Last year, the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects put the Lincoln on its list of 100 best buildings in Florida.
“They really were trying to make a statement,” Stein said of the theater’s builders. “This was our version of Times Square and Broadway.”
Though it closed as a movie theater in the early to mid-1980s, the Lincoln was quickly rescued by the New World Symphony, then a new orchestra and training academy.
In 1987 the orchestra converted the building into its home — also helping launch the revival of the then-derelict pedestrian mall. But the cultural group lacked the resources for meticulous restoration, instead covering worn floors with carpeting and painting over interior walls faced by stone.
Last year, the New World moved to a new Frank Gehry-designed home behind the old theater, which sold quickly to Stein’s group.
Though some in the real-estate world were skeptical, Stein said, the building’s commercial potential was obvious to him, given its architectural panache and the rents commanded by Lincoln Road, now one of the most desirable streets in the world for retailers.
But Stein confesses he was unprepared for how difficult the conversion would prove, especially given the Beach’s hyper-vigilant supervision of work on historic buildings. Because Lincoln Road sits within a legally protected historic district, the renovation required public hearings and stringent review by city historic-preservation planners.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into. I thought it would be a piece of cake,” Stein said, laughing at the memory. “But I couldn’t put a nail in the wall without a committee of preservationists looking over my shoulder.
“It had to maintain the look and feel of an old movie theater. That was the hard part.”
The cost of renovation, too, was substantially higher than that of building from scratch, he said. He “blew out” all the interiors to the walls while carefully saving architectural details, like scalloped plaster ceilings uncovered during demolition, and installed all new electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems and miles of conduits.
He also closed a service gap between the theater and office portions of the building, extending rentable floor space and making the interior flow together better.
In the end, he said, it was all worthwhile. He and his investors have a unique, irreproducible building whose architectural distinction will not only lure shoppers, passersby and design buffs, but will continue paying off above the norm for years to come.
“The building is a piece of art in itself, and that’s what creates value,” he said.