Miami-Dade County

Once-segregated theater listed as national historic place

The Ace Theatre in Coconut Grove is steeped in history from Miami’s segregation era. It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, paving the way for renovations and restoration.
The Ace Theatre in Coconut Grove is steeped in history from Miami’s segregation era. It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, paving the way for renovations and restoration. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Coconut Grove’s Ace Theatre, a blacks-only theater in the era of segregation, is now on the National Register of Historic Places, a listing that will aid the longtime owners in bringing it back to life after decades of disuse.

The theater was built in 1930 but has not been used as a movie house since the 1970s. There have been several proposals for its redevelopment but none ever panned out. The building is dilapidated and in need of major repairs.

“This will definitely preserve the legacy of Coconut Grove,” said Denise Wallace, president of ACE Development, the family company that has owned the theater since 1979. “This building was very much a part of the community. It was a focal point of life. It wasn’t just a movie theater though — local high schools had proms and graduations there. Talent shows and gospel shows were held. It was considered a conference hall. We want to bring it back to that.”

The theater, located at 3664 Grand Ave., was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 13.

This will definitely preserve the legacy of Coconut Grove.

Denise Wallace, president of ACE Development

Being on the list makes the theater eligible for federal historic tax credits, which can be used to attract funds to renovate the theater and put it back into operation. It will also make the theater eligible for state and federal grants and allows ACE Development to sell transferable development rights, all things “that will make the theater more appealing to investors,” Wallace said. “Now we can renovate and restore this property and make it viable again.”

Listing in the National Register does not restrict its use unless the site gets federal money.

Built in 1930, the movie theater was the only film house serving the Grove’s black community in the 1950s. Wallace said the theater stopped operating in the early ’70s when other movie theaters were developed in downtown Miami and what is now Pinecrest.

“People started going there instead and it was no longer commercially viable,” she said.

Being on the National Register of Historic Places makes the Ace Theatre eligible for federal historic tax credits.

In 1973, the property was leased out to a church for about two years and later became inoperable during a recession. Wallace said that over the decades, businesses showed interest in leasing the property but that she felt “it wasn’t the right fit.”

“At one point a pawn shop was interested in renting. At another point it was a club or a rave. There were even thoughts of making it an indoor flea market,” she said. “It just wasn’t the right mix or the right time.”

The Ace Theatre is one of 17 entertainment buildings in Florida that bears the historic designation. Two others are in Miami-Dade County — the Lyric Theater in Overtown and the Olympia Theatre, sometimes known as the Gusman Theatre, in downtown Miami.

To qualify for the designation, a property must be 50 years or older and look like it did in the past. The national registry also analyzes whether a property reflects important historic developments, events, individuals, architecture, achievements or archeology.

Applications take about two years to complete, Wallace said, due to extensive research. In 2014, ACE Development won approval for a local historic designation from the city of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board. With the city designation, ACE Development was able to win the support of the Florida Division of Historic Resources, which nominates buildings to the National Register of Historic Places.

Wallace said ACE Development is hoping to partner with the city of Miami or Miami-Dade County to bring back the theater and manage it as a multi-purpose venue for local residents. She added that she’s hoping to make it a concert and wedding venue, “returning it to its original use, making a community-based facility that can still show movies”

“This all tells the story of simple ordinary people that time would’ve forgotten and welcomes newcomers who are now part of the Coconut Grove community,” Wallace said. “Now it can embrace everybody.”

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan

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