Miami-Dade County

To save Grove Playhouse, historic board decides it’s OK to tear down part of it

The Coconut Grove Playhouse
The Coconut Grove Playhouse

Miami’s historic preservation board on Tuesday approved “in concept only” a controversial Miami-Dade County plan that would salvage the fabled but long-closed Coconut Grove Playhouse by preserving and restoring the Mediterranean wing-shaped front building that defines the theater while demolishing the large auditorium at the rear.

Under a master plan developed for the county by Miami-based Arquitectonica, a smaller new auditorium with 300 seats — the size that planners say would be financially feasible to build and operate — would replace the old auditorium of around 1,100 seats. The concept also includes a separate parking garage topped by residential units.

The board endorsed the plan by a 4-1 vote after hours of discussion and public testimony and amid some confusion about what precisely an approval would allow the county to do. Board members complained that the submitted master plan lacks the level of detailed design work that would permit them to fully assess the project’s look, functionality and impact on the historic building and its surroundings.

But the county’s cultural affairs director, Michael Spring, said the board would have a chance to review more detailed plans as they are developed, and board member Todd Tragash, in drafting a motion in support, specified that Tuesday’s approval was only conditional.

Still, the vote seemed a qualified endorsement of the county’s position that the 1927 playhouse auditorium, altered significantly and repeatedly over decades, lacks sufficient architectural and historic integrity to justify barring its demolition.

The city board had designated the playhouse a protected historic site in 2004, but that measure covered only the building’s front, not the auditorium or its interior — a decision that some board members took issue with on Tuesday.

Board member Lynn Lewis, the one “no” vote, unsuccessfully proposed a motion to deny approval and to revisit the 2004 analysis to include the auditorium. The motion failed to get a second. Lewis was also concerned over the loss of renovations to the auditorium in the 1950s by famed Miami Modernist architect Alfred Browning Parker, who designed the old movie house’s conversion into use for live theater.

But preservationists and Grove residents pleaded with the board to save the original auditorium, the site of notable productions such as the U.S. debut of theater masterpiece “Waiting for Godot.” Sundering the auditorium from the front building, they argue, would destroy the integrity of the original theater, designed by the famed early 20th century firm of Kiehnel and Elliott.

A parade of local residents also brought up concerns about potential overdevelopment of the site, which under the plan would also have new shops and restaurants, and its impact on the mostly black West Grove neighborhood it backs up to.

Noted preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle, who inspected the theater earlier this year, said many of the auditorium’s original elements, like the proscenium arch and swirling columns, remain and could be restored or reproduced, though some are buried beneath Browning Parker’s “insensitive” renovations.

Design architect Richard Kiehnel’s original “fabric,” Heisenbottle said, “has not been erased; it has merely been covered up.” Demolishing it, he added, “would be a tragic result.”

Board members also struggled with a related debate over the proper size of the revived playhouse. A foundation started by lawyer and cultural patron Mike Eidson, who calls the 300-seat theater plan unambitious, has been pushing the county to consider a 700-seat theater that would allow larger, more elaborate productions with big stars.

But Spring and Joe Adler, director of GableStage, the small but successful company that would take over the playhouse, insisted that a larger theater risks financial failure in a city where dramatic companies have trouble filling seats.

“We want to build a state-of-the-art theater, a spectacular space that will have all the bells and whistles of the best theaters in the world,” Adler told the board. “I feel so confident that this is the plan for the future.”