For decades, the Flower Theatre in Silver Spring’s Long Branch neighborhood entertained generations of residents eager to see the latest films. In recent years, however, the Art Deco-style movie house has sat vacant and may need substantial funding to be usable again.
How can we bring the Flower Theatre back to life? On Saturday, August 4 from 10-1, we’ll explore this at a community charrette, or idea-generating workshop, hosted by Fenton Street Market, a marketplace of local vendors in downtown Silver Spring.
How did the theater become vacant, and why hasn’t it been filled yet? What do you think should happen with the space?
Theater declined amid neighborhood changes
Located on Flower Avenue just north of Piney Branch Road, the Flower Theatre opened in February 1950 and was built by the K-B Organization, a regional chain of movie houses. It was designed by architects John Jacob Zink and Frederick L.W. Moehle, also responsible for a number of well-loved local theaters, like the Uptown in Washington and the Senator in Baltimore.
The first film shown at the 800-seat theater was “Great Lover” starring Bob Hope, and audiences could enter to win a new Plymouth. Later that year, the Flower appeared on the cover of Boxoffice magazine in an issue on “The Modern Theatre.”
The surrounding Long Branch neighborhood was changing, however. By the 1970s, it had become Montgomery County’s “melting pot,” home to immigrants from around the world. However, blight and disinvestment afflicted the neighborhood, affecting the Flower Theatre’s fortunes.
K-B closed the Flower and sold it in 1979, the same year that Flower Avenue was described by residents as “quite seedy” and “the trashiest neighborhood in Montgomery County” in a Washington Post article. Throughout the 1980’s, the theater changed hands twice as new operators divided the single auditorium into two screens, added two more screens, and converted it to a discount movie house.
After closing again in 1996, a local entrepreneur bought the Flower and tried to turn it into a cultural arts center before his plans fell through. More recently, a Spanish-language church occupied the building before moving out in 2008. The theater has been vacant ever since.
New ideas flower
During that time, people have been dreaming of what they’d do with the Flower Theatre. Last month, Long Branch resident Amanda Hurley reached out to her neighbors, who had lots of ideas for the space. Suggestions included turning it into a venue for “fun exercise activities,” a community meeting hall, or an indoor flea market.
One of my favorite proposals is repurposing the Flower as a café and bookstore, like Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store, also a former theater. Not surprisingly, many folks recommended returning it to a movie theater showing second-run or foreign-language films, in a nod to the area’s Spanish-speaking population.
However, any reuse of the Flower Theatre could be very expensive. “If someone wanted to come and use it now for retail, for theater, or anything else ... it would need a complete gut renovation to bring it up to code,” says Greg Fernebok of Harvey Property Management Company, who owns the theater and the adjacent shopping center along Flower Avenue.
Fernebok estimates it would take over $600,000 to make the space usable again, which includes installing fire alarms and sprinklers, building ADA-complaint restrooms, and replacing the roof, among other improvements. And if the county designates the building as historic, there may be strict requirements for how it’s restored.
Unable to find a tenant willing to pay for those improvements, Fernebok has basically left the building alone. “It makes more sense to leave it in the condition it’s in and keep it safe,” he says.
That said, it’s unclear what the theater’s condition is, as very few people have been inside since it closed. Judging from this 2008 photo of the lobby, the space looks habitable, though most of the original décor is gone.
Changes make rebirth possible
There remains a lot of potential for the Flower, however. The surrounding shopping center is completely leased and hasn’t had a vacancy in 20 years, suggesting that there’s demand for more retail space in the area.
Meanwhile, the area is becoming more affluent. Households within one mile of the Flower Theatre have a median income of $73,000 a year, while those living within five miles have a median income of $93,000. Eventually, the Purple Line could stop around the corner from the theatre, drawing additional visitors and investment to the neighborhood.
Though bringing the Flower back to life will be challenging, all the changes in store for Long Branch make now a great time to start exploring how to do it. The goal of our charrette is to create an “inventory” of community wants and needs and explore how the Flower Theatre could be repurposed to meet them, whether in the short term or in the future. We’ve also invited a “staff” of local architects, planners and community leaders to offer their thoughts and expertise.
Like in previous charrettes at Fenton Street Market, we’ll have a big tent with tables, chairs and lots of markers. You’ll be able to stop in throughout the day to offer your perspective and suggestions. Hopefully, this will be the first of several charrettes throughout the summer and fall tackling different disused spaces around Silver Spring.
If you’d like to participate, come out to Fenton Street Market on Saturday, August 4 from 10 am to 1 pm. The market is located in Veterans Plaza at the corner of Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring. For more information, or if you’d like to participate on our staff, you can email me at danreed at ggwash.org.