Did Weingarten Realty Just Bury the 1939 Art Deco Interior of the Alabama Theater in Concrete?

It sure looks like it: Here’s a photo of the theater’s west parking lot, sent to Swamplot by a reader who noted that a concrete pour began on Saturday morning. Earlier this month, Weingarten received a permit for “Landlord Improvements — Infill/Leveling,” though the permit’s title doesn’t make it clear what kind of leveling the national REIT wanted to do to the landmarked structure at 2922 S. Shepherd Dr., which is expected to be transformed into Houston’s first Trader Joe’s market.

Why would Weingarten want to pour a thick layer of concrete onto the floor of its historic building — and how much demolition of the theater’s interior might be accompanying this work?

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When Mike Treadway Architects planned the theater’s conversion into the Alabama Bookstop bookstore back in 1984, the award-winning renovation added a system of wooden platforms and stairs that provided level surfaces for customers but still preserved the elaborate interior space — so that someday a later user might still be able to convert it back to a working theater. (As in most movie theaters, the original floor was sloped toward the stage and original screen.) A similar system of constructed platforms could have been used again to prepare the space for a non-big-box retailer like Trader Joe’s, where customers use shopping carts but the store doesn’t need to operate forklifts or other heavy equipment inside. But Weingarten appears to have chosen a more permanent solution to ridding the theater of its unique interior features. And more than simple flooring changes may have already taken place.

Plans prepared for Weingarten Realty in March of 2010 (when office-supply retailer Staples was believed to have been interested in the space), detailed an extensive interior demolition to accompany a leveling concrete pour. As Swamplot noted at the time, the plans — which had been sent out to bid before Swamplot discovered them, and which prompted a strong response among local preservationists and some backpedaling from Weingarten — called for the removal of all interior non-structural elements and infill of the building’s basement and air-vent tunnels, in order to prepare what the bid documents described as a “‘cold-dark shell’ ready to accept future tenant construction.” Is this what Trader Joe’s is asking Weingarten to do before it’ll sign a lease?

These drawings from last year’s documents show the theater space’s proposed before:

and after the demolition and concrete pour:

Another view of the interior, from its final days as a bookstore:

Swamplot’s tipster notes that a large dumpster has been sitting in the parking lot behind the theater for the last 2 weeks. Though Weingarten Realty was required to receive city approval for its proposed changes to the outside of the building (which it did), no approval other than a permit is required for any alterations to the interior, because only the theater’s exterior is a designated historic landmark.

If the concrete trucks operating over the weekend were reaching into the building’s innards to bury the theater floor, it’s more than likely that the mural below, which theatergoers used to see to the left side of the stage would be a casualty of the work; workers would probably need to puncture through that wall from the rear of the building to reach into the main space.

Photos: Swamplot inbox (concrete trucks); Flickr users mlsnp (balcony view) and photine (stage [license]); Jim Parsons/GHPA (mural)

30 Comment

  • “…workers would probably need to puncture through that wall from the rear of the building to reach into the main space.”

    Actually the wall wouldn’t “need” to be punctured. The hoses on pump trucks I’ve contracted over the past 10 years have been quite flexible and can be extended to great lengths.

  • It’s a shame that Trader Joe’s outbid the dozens of private and public bids that promised to return the Alabama to a combination art-house, hipster coffee bar.

    Wait. There were Zero bids from any group that would have returned the Alabama to it’s prior (long long long ago) glory.

    It’s too bad. But if no one steps up with the cash to “save” a building, the choice is leave it empty or sell to a group that will put it to use.

  • Goose- You are flat out wrong. I know first hand of someone who put a very serious proposal together for that space and they were very disappointed to lose out to a “national” chain.

  • @Doofus – who cares if its a national chain? Are you really so ignorant to think that most things you buy even from local chains all come from the Houston area? Is a national chain or product somehow inferior to a State or local chain? Do both not employ people from Houston to work in their Houston store?

    Im just glad Trader Joes and Weingarten did what they needed or wanted to do without having to ask you, or the other preservation natzi’s for permission…it got done without a protest from someone who has no right to complain about something they don’t have an interest in….Nice work Trader Joes! Cant wait for you to open!

  • hi doofus.

    Does ‘serious’ mean ‘higher dollar bid’?

    Thanks -
    DDG

  • Sent a note to Trader Joe’s via their home website. We really need another overpriced cutesy foodie store, and by god, that floor had better be level enough for roller-skating.

  • As the owner of this building I’m shocked and outraged.

    Oh wait….

  • If you love Houston you will boycott any establishment owned by wiengarten. If you shop at Trader Joe’s you are a traitor.

  • It’s interesting that facts to the contrary never deter the “tear it down” crowd from crowing about how Houston’s lack of real zoning and real protection for significant structures is good for business. NYC, London, Paris, Boston, and SFO have some of the most restrictive protections for their historic buildings and neighborhoods in the world, AND also some of the highest property values in the world. Houston, a city that literally protects and preserves nothing has among the lowest property values in the country. It would be funny if not so pathetic that so many Houstonians consider having among the least desirable property of any major city (based on what people are willing to pay) in the country as some sort of brownie point. Go figure.

  • Ummm, Marksmu, you do know that the exterior is a protected landmark and they did have to get permission to do what they wanted to do to the exterior from a bunch of preservation “natzis”?
    And I can definitely say that a lot of locally grown produce is superior to what is grown out of state in terms of taste and freshness. When you buy local, the tax dollars stay local instead of going off to the holders of some offshore hedge fund.

  • Oh no: more concrete. In development crazed Houston. Will the horror ever cease?

  • Hot dog! I won the pool. I took the over on 12 noon being when the first ‘If I Own It, I Can Do Whatever the Fork I Want With It, You Commies’ reply would show up! Thanks DDG! Always pays to take the over on a Monday. You people are so predictable.

  • I just got sick to my stomach. Proof yet again that Houston can’t have nothin’ nice.

  • Well, this calls for drowning sorrows. I think doing so on certain privately-owned restaurant patios WITH MY DOG will be necessary.

  • Why are we blaming Weingarten and not Trader Joe’s? TJ’s probably got to design the interior of the store to suit their needs. Never mind, I just remembered, Weingarten is an Evil Corporation and Trader Joe’s is Hipster Approved. That’s why.

  • @ Jon: I like that our housing is affordable and that our cost to do business is low. These are a feature, not a bug.

  • Jon the low property values are a positive for the people of Houston and the city. Inflating property values with use restrictions just accrues big profits to established landowners, drives up rent, limits competitive experimentation to find the best use of property, and enriches politically connected individuals savvy enough to navigate the various agencies charged with approving exceptions. Ask any average person living in or thinking of moving to London to list things that are bad about the city, and the inflated property prices will be high on their list 9 times out of 10.

  • Funny that London should be mentioned – one of our Lloyds underwriters in town last week commented that Houston was the IKEA of city planning. I thought it was a rather astute observation.

  • I have not been in the building for years, since it was Bookstop, and only a few times, but didn’t Bookstop leave the floors rather unlevel, like the movie theatre was? It seems I remember a lot of levels in there.

    Trader Joe’s is going to have to level the floor somehow to make it shoppable as a supermarket. I mean, come on guys!

    I do hope they did not destroy the mural in the process. As someone pointed out above, they have huge hoses now that they use to pour concrete, they don’t necessarily have to bust through a wall.

    Also, I think Trader Joe’s, if for no reason other than to keep their image intact is not gonna go around unnecessarily smashing.

  • Like the last movie I saw there when I was young, so goes the floor – Gone With The Wind!

  • It’s official. Swamplot has now gone the way of The HAIF and Chron.com…

  • Does anyone have photos of the original theater’s interior?
    Was the floor awesome?
    Was it terrazzo?
    If so, I would be so pissed that they’ve been buried.
    The raised floors installed for Book Stop must have been very well designed & executed to hold up under the dead weight of all those fixtures & books and the live weight of customers.
    (Unless it didn’t work at all & was dangerous or falling apart, which I don’t know.)
    My feeling is that Trader Joe’s would require no more solid a floor than what could be made with framing members. In fact, plumbing would be simpler. Framed floors might even be less costly than numerous pours of concrete.
    But, my guess is that Houston real estate is cheap enough (& agreeable enough) to make permanently filling in a really unique envelope a non-question – not even a bump in the road.
    And that is why low-cost, no regulation Houston is:
    A) Fantastic
    B) Crappy
    Wouldn’t it be so ironic if in 25 years, historians are digging through 6′ of concrete to uncover some masterpiece of American Theatre Design?!

  • Ah yes, if only Houston had higher land values and the poor couldn’t afford to live here – the true dream of zoning advocates everywhere.

  • Bookstop used a system of platforms and steps to provide terraces for shelving. It really doesn’t matter how sturdy those floors are because they aren’t the issue, the steps are. How exactly are people going to navigate a store with steps everywhere whilst pushing a shopping cart?

  • All the previous renovations were done before the ADA requirements became stupid. I remember pushing my girlfriend’s wheelchair through Bookstop, do-able, but only because I’m a “big strawng man” as Olive Oyl used to put it.

  • @Hellsing: to take your IKEA analogy further, that would suggest that Houston is a starter city, and as soon as you can you trade up. (“You mean we can afford a couch that doesn’t collapse sometimes? Yay!”)

  • I went to whole earth and petsmart last night. peaked into the former BookStop and it appears they have laid concrete. I could only see into the part that used to be the room with the cashiers. The outside of the entrance still has the beautiful terrazzo. As much as I’d have loved to see the interior kept completely intact, I think it is an unreasonable expectation. I just wish they’d allow historic salvaging.

  • @movocelot

    The only reference to flooring I have found/seen was in Welling’s Cinema Houston and it just mentions acanthus-leaf pattern carpeting in the auditorium..

    It also mentions the enthusiasm of Bookstop’s president in 1984 about saving the interior and hiring an appropriate design firm.

  • GUS! are you there? how did you miss this!
    Trader Joe’s has filed two sales tax applications in Texas…one in Fort Worth and the other in The Woodlands….