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Royal Oak

Baldwin Theatre organizers seek historic designation

July 16, 2013

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The Baldwin Theatre in Royal Oak is 91 years old. Members of Stagecrafters, which operates out of the Baldwin Theatre, pushed to have the theater designated as a historical site.

The City Commission voted 6-0 July 8 to approve the first reading of an ordinance designating the 91-year-old Baldwin Theatre a historical site.

The designation will go before the commission for a final vote at its next meeting July 15. Commissioner Jim Rasor was absent from the July 8 meeting.

Ruth Cleaveland, the chairwoman of the city’s Historic District Study Committee and the Historic District Committee, said the designation would prevent the structure from any future demolition. It also would place restrictions on exterior changes to the structure, which must be approved by the Historic District Committee.

“We recognize that times change and that sometimes you have to alter an old building and make some changes for one reason or another,” Cleaveland said.

The district committee, Cleaveland explained, looks out for the preservation of the buildings designated historic. It approves exterior work that will not harm the outside of buildings. For example, many of Royal Oak’s older buildings cannot have paint power washed from walls. She said that, instead, the paint must be removed manually.

Members of the theater say they sought the recognition because they see the Baldwin as an important part of Royal Oak’s legacy.

“I think it’s the mainstay of the cultural fabric in Royal Oak,” said Mary Ann McCourt, the executive director of Stagecrafters, the nonprofit organization that operates out of the theater.  “We consider it as an anchor. I think it’s wonderful recognition for us.”

Mel Janney, a member of the theater, added that the recognition will make the theater more of a tourist destination.

The theater opened June 22, 1922, with its first movie, “Reported Missing,” according to documents from the committee. The theater seated 1,400 and was built with a neoclassical interior. While its first showing was a movie, it evolved through the 1920s to be a stage for plays and vaudeville shows.

The theater name was changed to Washington Theatre in the 1930s. It’s the name it would bear into the 1970s, when a fire caused $30,000 worth of damage.

By 1984, the theater was in the city’s hands and the commission considered tearing it down. That was until Stagecrafters, which at that time was based out of Clawson, bought the theater for $70,000 and renamed it the Baldwin Theatre.

Janney said the last major renovation to the theater was in 2005.

Marc Sackin, the secretary of the city’s study committee, said it is important to preserve parts of the city’s past, particularly in a place like Royal Oak, where new buildings are going up often.

“As Royal Oak changes and expands, and businesses come and go, come and go, places like this have been here,” Sackin said. “It’s part of the root and history of Royal Oak. It’s not just some place like Emagine Theater, where it’s here one year and gone the next.”

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