The war did finally end a few years later, and as America shifted into a postwar economic boom, rising fortunes brought many new technological marvels into peoples’ homes. Along with automobiles, washers and dryers, and refrigerators, more and more Americans could now afford television sets. The great movie houses of the early twentieth century felt the pressure of competition and obsolescence as time wore on. Cinema design and planning began to move away from large venues, focusing more on multiple screens and smaller auditoriums. It was harder to fill a large movie house night after night, and the old-school one-screen venues lacked the ability to offer multiple features simultaneously. By the 1970’s, many of our treasured movie houses around the nation were either already lost, or being closed.
Butterfield was feeling this pressure right along with its competitors. In 1979, the company subdivided the State into four smaller theaters, by closing off the balcony level from the orchestra level and dividing both levels in half. This brought the total seating capacity down significantly, to 1,400 seats, and the theater’s original finishes were hidden away behind red velvet curtains. A moment of diminishment, to be sure, but it proved to be the State’s second lucky break. Butterfield’s lease on the Michigan Theater had also ended that year, and the company made the decision to close the venerable theater and vacate the building. But the State was spared for a few more years. (Things didn’t turn out so badly for the Michigan Theater, either, but we’ll get to that).
In the mid-1980’s, Butterfield sold the State Theater, along with its other remaining theaters, to GKC Theaters, Inc. GKC owned and operated the theater until it determined that the State was no longer viable, and sold the State in 1989. The new owner was a real estate management company owned by local entrepreneur and Borders bookstore co-founder Tom Borders. The new ownership elected to close the theater altogether while they considered the fate of the building, but it was never a mystery that the owners had plans for the old movie house, and those plans involved a major change in use. The orchestra-level theaters and entrance lobby were cleared out and the main floor was leveled out to create retail space on the main floor. The balcony level theaters were retained. The original box office was converted into a new entrance for the theaters, and a small lobby was carved out of an old storage room.
The original State Theatre
It might seem hard to believe, but this was the State’s third lucky break. I think Tom Borders was first and foremost looking for an investment opportunity with the State Theater, but he also knew that it was an important landmark in town. Lots of ideas floated up about what might become of the building. I recall one rendering I saw in my college days that proposed a massive glass ziggurat of a high-rise jutting forth from the shell of the old State. At least it gets points for imagination, depending on who you ask. But Borders had held on to the balcony level theaters in hopes that someone would come along and start showing movies there. It happened in 1992, when a father and son duo redecorated the State’s mezzanine lounge in a Hawaiian motif and reopened the house. A valiant effort, but the venture didn’t survive. Borders sold the State in 1997.
It is here that we turn back to the old Michigan Theater, abandoned in 1979 and almost lost to history. This threat inspired a dedicated group of local volunteers to form the Michigan Theater Foundation. The group successfully lobbied to save the theater, resumed operations, and eventually restored the Michigan to its original splendor. In 1999 the Michigan assumed operation of the State Theater, affording them the opportunity to expand their programming with the two additional screens. But the Michigan Theater Foundation also realized that the State was a threatened resource, and they began to develop a contingency plan, should the building’s owners decide to change directions. The call to action came in 2014, when the State’s owners announced that they were planning to redevelop the theater’s balcony level as lease office space.
The Michigan Theater Foundation jumped to action – and the State caught its latest lucky break. The foundation proposed to purchase the mezzanine lounge, the theater lobby and the balcony level theaters from the building owners as a condominium. The foundation hired Quinn Evans Architects to conduct a “due diligence” assessment and study for the theaters. We assessed the theaters and their related building systems and prepared some initial design studies to determine the feasibility of needed improvements, including renovation of the theaters, barrier-free access, and overall improvement of the theater-going experience. The purchase went through, and in 2016 we teamed up with O’Neal Construction to begin a design-build project to implement the improvements.
Our project at the State Theatre provided four state-of-the-art theaters with digital sound and projection equipment. The venue is fully accessible, serviced by an elevator and new restrooms. The interior design echoes the original materials, colors and finishes, reinterpreted in a contemporary aesthetic. The renovated State Theatre has allowed the Michigan Theater Foundation to expand its offerings, including independent film and first-run features. The transformation of this iconic Ann Arbor landmark will enrich our community for years to come.