A representative of Weingarten Realty Investors has confirmed the murals in the Alabama Theater (1939, Pettigrew & Worley), 2922 S. Shepherd Drive, were destroyed when contractors demolished the proscenium and screen wall inside the historic building. The result of that work is visible in the photo at left, which shows the exposed tile walls backstage as seen from the theater’s front entrance.
GHPA had contacted the architect and the developer about preserving the theater’s interior before the murals were removed and has offered its assistance as the project goes forward. GHPA regularly provides research assistance for developers and individual property owners who are planning projects involving historic buildings.
On Veterans Day, Weingarten Realty sent out a news release about construction under way at the Alabama describing the work as “interior upgrades.” The last sentence of the release noted that the company had removed the murals, shown below, that flanked the movie screen.
The company’s release incorrectly stated that the murals were not original to the theater. GHPA has documented that the murals were a significant component of the theater’s original interior design. GHPA contacted Judith Urrutia, lead architect for the 1983 conversion of the theater into Bookstop, who confirmed that the murals were original.
On November 2, 1939, the day the theater opened, both the Houston Post and Houston Chronicle carried stories about the theater that described the interior and mentioned the murals. A historic photo of the Alabama’s interior in the Bob Bailey archive of the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas clearly shows the murals in place. A similar photo dated 1946 in the archive of the Dallas Public Library also shows the murals in place.
The Weingarten release stated that a structural issue required removal of the proscenium wall. Movie theater murals were usually painted on canvas and applied to the walls; the question of whether the Alabama murals could have been removed, preserved and reinstalled is now moot. GHPA has suggested the murals be recreated or that interpretive signage illustrating the theater’s interior be installed when a new tenant occupies the space.
Although the Alabama Theater is a designated City of Houston landmark, Houston’s preservation ordinance does not protect interiors. Weingarten Senior Director Brooke J. Harvey was quoted in the release saying the company “… is preparing the space to make it viable for retailers.” No mention was made of the Trader Joe’s grocery chain as a potential tenant.
Alabama Theater (1939) interior in 2011, top, and 2008. Photos by Jim Parsons.