Alternative use

If you have taken my sage advice and started reading some of the blogs I recommended the other day, you may have followed the link from Sweet Juniper to this photoset of the Michigan Theatre. The theatre was built in 1926, one of the many grandiose theatres that filled the then-booming Detroit. It’s easy to imagine, even in the sad elegance of the structure now, the tinkling of ice in the gin glasses and the sparkle of sequined and beaded gowns adorning the grand dames of society. It must have been spectacular.

Like so many of its brethren, it struggled to make it through the 60s, as the world modernized around it, and the theatre fell on harder times in the 1970s. It was partially demolished in 1976, and then something odd happened. Instead of tearing the building down entirely, it was converted into a parking garage. As it was. Now, cars park under the frescoed ceilings, their tires occupying the same space that once held red, plush seats. It is an extraordinary site.

And I don’t know how to feel about it. It haunts me, in a visceral way. To see such a grand, beautiful building being used in such a mundane way unsettles me. It is almost as if I am the only one who can see the history shining though, dark and dingy, but still there and still resonant. Like I have somehow stumbled on a secret treasure, and those people who are parking their cars in it have no idea what lies behind the crumbling concrete walls, which is surely all they can see.

And yet, what was the other option? Literally hundreds of theatres like this one have been lost in this country. They were torn down because no one appreciated the stunning deco architecture and no one had use for an old worn out theatre that could seat 3,000. They were hungry for the land they sat on, usually in a central, downtown location. Prime for large-scale condominiums or a giant, grey office buildings. Would that have been better? Would it have been better to see the building lost entirely? Is it worth it to cheapen the building for the sake of saving it? Is it still possible to appreciate the beauty and the elegance while you are standing next to a 1989 Ford Taurus? Is this an incredibly successful example of alternative use or one of the greatest failures? I don’t know how to feel about it.

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