Saving downtown — from itself
Published: Sunday, September 19, 2010, 7:13 AM
The truth is, we were this close in the mid-1970s to knocking down the Michigan Theater, the gorgeous space we now know as the Frauenthal Theater in downtown Muskegon.
Thirty-odd years ago, the wrecking ball was poised and ready to swing in the name of urban renewal, aimed directly at the big old theater standing on the corner of Third Street and Western Avenue.
The plan was well-intentioned, even if in some people’s minds, misguided. Others called it progress.
Down went the Occidental Hotel, the Regent Theater (which some insist was even more beautiful than the Michigan), the uniquely shaped Flatiron Building, little shops like Newmode Hosiery and big department stores like Grossman’s that once lined Western Avenue.
For awhile, it was like being in a demolition derby downtown, everything smashed and destroyed, piles of rubble left behind. The idea was out with the old, in with a new and covered mall on what once was the community’s main street: Western Avenue. To be fair, it was considered cutting edge architecture at the time, enough that it drew national attention in urban renewal circles.
City officials from across the country came to see what Muskegon was doing, how it was resurrecting and reinventing its downtown, which had faded from glory as people moved into the suburbs — away from the urban center.
In one plan, a parking lot was needed where the old Michigan Theater, which had fallen on bad times in the 1960s and ’70s, stood. Built in 1930 at the height of the Depression, the theater was a sorry sight. No one disagreed that it had seen better days aesthetically or that it had lost the bulk of its clientele to newer, more modern movie theaters.
But there was a group of people in town, a coalition of historic preservationists, civic-minded citizens and emerging philanthropists, who put their collective feet down, and said: No, not this one. Not the Michigan. This one stays.
As the reporter who covered the arts beat in those days, I interviewed people who stood emotionally and physically in front of the wrecking ball — grandmothers who loved old buildings, guys who saved houses that became Heritage Village downtown, men and women who had too memories connected to the theater to see it go.
They saved the Michigan Theater from certain destruction. It was a heroic effort, but their work wasn’t done. The Community Foundation for Muskegon County, an emerging organization, used $475,000 of a $1.5 -million gift from Muskegon industrialist Harold Frauenthal to buy not only the theater, but the entire block from Third to Fourth streets on Western Avenue.
Together, the foundation and those willing to defy the wrecking ball saved a piece of Muskegon’s past.
In an unprecedented move, members of the town’s labor unions volunteered their time and expertise to transform what became the Hilt Building next to the theater into classrooms, meeting spaces, an art gallery and small theater.
Because of them, and more grants from the Community Foundation, the Frauenthal Center for Performing Arts rose from what could have been rubble.
The theater would need saving again. In 1995, the residents of Muskegon County voted to help fund a $7.5-million renovation of the theater and bring it back in all its historic glory.
This weekend, the Frauenthal is celebrating its 80th anniversary, a testimony to what a community can do when its people decide to preserve its past. The irony, of course, is that in doing so — in saving a bit of history — we secured our future.
Once again, downtown Muskegon is rising up, reinvented and resurging. And its cornerstone? The place that brings thousands of people through its doors every year?
That theater some people wanted destroyed, all in the name of progress.
Susan Harrison Wolffis is a Chronicle columnist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org