Coconut Grove

Don’t demolish historic Grove Playhouse auditorium, neighbors say in appeal

The exterior of the historic but long-shut Coconut Grove Playhouse.
The exterior of the historic but long-shut Coconut Grove Playhouse. Miami Herald Staff

A pair of neighbors have formally challenged a city of Miami board’s approval of a controversial plan that would allow demolition and replacement of the auditorium at the historic but long-closed Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Grove residents Barbara Lange and Katrina Morris filed a notice of appeal of the historic preservation board’s April 4 decision, arguing that members failed to adequately consider the historic importance of the auditorium’s interior. The appeal will be heard by the Miami commission on June 22, said Lowell Kuvin, attorney for Lange and Morris.

A master plan developed by Miami-based Arquitectonica for Miami-Dade County calls for restoring the 1927 landmark’s three-story Mediterranean-style front building while replacing the 1,100-seat auditorium with a state-of-the-art, 300-seat theater. The county is trying to resuscitate the publicly owned theater, which closed abruptly a decade ago, under a complex deal with the state of Florida.

The county and its consultants argue that the auditorium, altered extensively over the years, should not be saved bcause it lacks architectural and historic integrity. The board approved the plan by a 4-1 vote, but only after members stressed they were doing so only “in concept” because architectural designs for the new theater and other new structures were not yet ready.

But in their notice, Lange and Morris contend that the board should have postponed a vote until members could fully evaluate the auditorium interior and fleshed-out site plans and architectural designs. The county plan also includes a parking garage topped by apartments, restaurant spaces and support structures like a costume shop.

The appeal notice also calls the original 2004 decision by the board to designate only the exterior of the playhouse as a protected historic site “flawed and inadequate.”

County officials have blamed the playhouse’s failure in part on the size of the auditorium, originally designed for use as a movie house. They say it’s too large to be financially feasible and outdated for use in modern live theater. But demolition opponents say tearing it down would destroy the integrity of the playhouse, widely regarded as a South Florida cultural and architectural landmark.

Meanwhile, 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.