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 theaters 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, we’re failing to draw crowds. By 1970, the theatre was rundown, showing primarily 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. The theatre was 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 that held the seeds of its resurrection. According to Architectural Historian Ann McDonald, 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 1920s…It is an excellent example of Mediterranean Revival Architecture which dominated Florida building in the 1920s.”
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 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, led by Board President Jeffery D. Dunn and Executive Director Trinita Logue, immediately began work to ensure the building’s preservation as a historic landmark and 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 exciting. The firm of original 1920s 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. One thousand attendees danced to dance music of the 1930s and 1940s 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 ’70s, 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 1920s. The concession stand, dating from the 1950s, was retained, as was the current marquee, which also dates from the 1950s. However, many of the theatre’s other features required minimal reconstruction, 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 national significance to the entire enterprise.