Even though the Florida Theatre Office Building contained the statewide headquarters of ABC Florida State Theatres, by the late 1960’s television and the population shift to the suburbs were affecting attendance. One attempt to woo audiences who were defecting to the shopping malls and the multiplexes was the installation of rocking-chair seats in the theatre. However, even major motion pictures like Hello, Dolly and Paint Your Wagon, both released in 1969, were failing to draw crowds, and by the 1970’s the theatre was rundown, showing mostly martial arts and racial exploitation films. A 1973 Times-Union article reported that the sculpture La Vergagnosa, a fixture in the lobby for as long as anyone could remember, had gone missing, and the theatre was in such disrepair that only 803 of its more than 1,900 seats were still functional. The last civic event to be held at the theatre was a car show by the Ford Motor Company, and the theatre finally closed on May 8, 1980.
However, the theatre was still an architectural gem rich in history, and that held the seeds of its resurrection. According to Architectural Historian Ann McDonald, writing in an application to the State for historic designation, “The Florida Theater Building is the last remaining movie palace in northeast Florida. Built during the golden age of movie palaces in the 1920’s…It is an excellent example of Mediterranean Revival Architecture which dominated Florida building in the 1920’s.”
Its unique status as the last remaining movie palace in northeast Florida could not be ignored, and soon another convert to the cause of preserving it was Mayor Godbold, but for an entirely different reason: economic development. “All successful redevelopment plans in the United States today are using the arts as a lure to build a core city,” he told the Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal. “We’ve seen this work in other cities. It will bring people downtown.”
Thus was born the effort to save and preserve the Florida Theatre for cultural and civic uses, with the Mayor, the City Council, the Jacksonville delegation to the State Legislature, and the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville all collaborating to repurpose the historic building for the good of the community. Using a $500,000 State of Florida grant, a $350,000 City of Jacksonville Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant, and $150,000 in fundraised and borrowed funds, on October 31, 1981 the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville, a nonprofit corporation, purchased the theatre from Plitt Southern Theatres, Inc. for $1 million.
The Arts Assembly, then lead by Board President Jeffery D. Dunn and Executive Director Trinita Logue, immediately began work to ensure the building’s preservation as an historic landmark, and to restore it for cultural uses. William Nash, then the President of the Southeastern Region for Prudential, was enlisted to Chair a capital fundraising drive, which in 1982-1983 sought $4 million for restoration, renovation, equipment and start-up operating costs.
Walter Taylor, Senior Vice President of KBJ Architects, and Herschel Shepard of Shepard Associates Architects and Planners, both of Jacksonville, were enlisted to steer the project. The selection of KBJ was particularly interesting. The firm of original 1920’s architect Roy Benjamin had evolved into Kemp, Bunch and Jackson, or KBJ for short.
Other firms participating in the renovation included general contractor D. Coleman, Inc.; Paxon Electric Co.; Van Wagenen and Searcy Engineers; Alexander Smith Carpet Mills; Country Roads Seating; Bolt, Beranek, Newnan Acousticians; Southern Ornamental Stone; White Historical Reproductions; Miller Electric; Ray’s Plumbing; Bill Williams Air Conditioning and Heating Co.; and the W.D. Brinson Co. for the general plaster work.
The restoration began with a Kick-Off Party held on Forsyth Street on Saturday, September 25, 1982 from 8:00 p.m. to midnight in the street. 1,000 attendees danced to dance music of the 1930’s and 1940’s provided by the dance band Illumination, and enjoyed an open air catered buffet. The theatre was open “as is” for one last look before renovations began.
Renovations included the restoration of the original balcony seats, replacement of the rocking chair seats installed in the orchestra in the late 60’s or early 70’s, and the addition of a wall at the rear of the orchestra seating section, which had been open to the rest of the lobby as had been customary in the 1920’s. The concession stand, dating from the 1950’s, was retained, as was the current marquee, which dates from the 1950’s as well. Many of the theatre’s other features required minimal reconstruction, however, and a significant amount of the building’s “original equipment” features and fixtures remain intact and in use today.
As renovations began, on December 28, 1982 the theatre was officially accepted onto the National Register of Historic Places, adding federal significance to the entire enterprise.