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Musings on movie theaters: historical preservation and unremarkable architecture

This past weekend I spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C. area. I don’t do that very often – in fact it’s been at least 15 years since I was there – but the historical aspect of even the suburbs like Bethesda spoke to me in a way different from my other visits. The current threat to the federal historical preservation tax credits was forefront in my mind, and so I decided to write this post focused on a particular aspect of historical preservation that prompts me to expand my history work to those not-overly-identifiable-as-important buildings. For me, a central example is the neighborhood movie theaters.

I have always loved going to the movies. I grew up when a person could see a movie in all of the different venues that had evolved during the 20th century, from going to a classic single-screen movie palace to going to drive-ins and megaplexes for dates and with friends. I had the experience of seeing movies that everyone had during through the 20th century: the need to go somewhere to see a movie which could only be seen in the theater and wouldn’t be available after it left.

Beginning in the early 20th century, neighbors would drop into a theater to watch the news reels or movie stars together. Kids would gather on a Saturday morning and troop down to the movie theater in one group. A gathering of families always meant someone had a handful of change for going to the theater for a late afternoon show. A particular movie theater became forever a reminder of a first date. Teenagers climbed out on the roof to watch the drive-in movie across the road. Bring up the topic of movie theaters and people who go to them begin smiling and retelling stories. These are places we loved for what happens there as much as for the buildings or environments themselves.

Today, when most people watch most movies at home or streaming on a hand-held device, the experience of watching movies not only changes the way places help create a community but also threatens even the large obnoxious theaters on the edge of town. Movie theaters use all types of methods to attempt to recreate that staying at home and passively watching movies as an individual experience. In order to get people out of their houses and into the theater, the mega-sized IMAX theaters change from being a rare opportunity to being increasingly common. The concession stands add whole meals and gourmet drink options to traditional candy, popcorn and pop. Instead of the magic coming from sitting in the dark watching with many people, there is the emphasis on imitating the individual experience of comfortable seating and digital projection in spaces not much larger than home theaters.

And this is where the issue of preserving movie theaters comes into play. When it comes to experiencing movie theaters in the past, there is a lot of nostalgia. But as social dynamics change and the original reasons for constructing buildings pass, the pool of people with nostalgic memories also gets smaller. Added to that is the fact that nostalgia isn’t enough and can be seen in the extensive loss of these places. That is the conundrum for historical preservation: the need to use objective criteria more than emotion as a reason for keeping a place, even while remembering the story of that place involves memories. How do we do both?

This question becomes more pertinent with the current considerations to defund the federal historical tax credits. Finding the median between practicality and memories helps the argument to keep this very important way to save past buildings. We need to appeal to those who disregard this importance in a way that is sensible and functionable. We also need to find arguments that the buildings to be saved with this tax credit might be those which aren't obviously unique but important for the social fabric because of the heritage they preserve.

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