Thursday, November 17, 2011

Rebirth of Austin's Americana: The Story of a Mid-'60s Roadside Theater and '90s Community-based Municipal Sustainability

Americana Theatre at the grand opening in 1965. Courtesy of the Austin History Center.

Americana Theatre after it closed and before adaptive reuse (1992)


Yarborough Branch Library (2009)

The story of Americana Theatre and its rebirth as the Yarborough Branch Library spans just less than fifty years, yet it represents multiple eras of significance and several noteworthy themes in Austin's history. Designed in 1964, the Americana Theatre was constructed one block west of Burnet Road. The main arterial was a main highway to Burnet, Texas that at mid twentieth-century had a growing number of commercial businesses that were springing up to serve the still new suburban neighborhoods of Allandale, Brentwood, and Crestview. The design of the Americana reflected an age in which movie theaters, like other commercial businesses, were being designed more intensively to serve the automobile.

The Americana's decline in the 1980s was followed by a heroic rescue by neighborhood and municipal leaders in the 1990s. This part of the building's history illustrates the depth of neighborhood participation in municipal decision-making. The development of a municipal branch library from vacant Americana Theatre is not only a message of hope for other mid-century icons, but is part of the story of the City of Austin's sustainability efforts. Sustainable design features were included in the adaptive reuse project even when Austin's Green Building program was still nascent. The reuse of the Americana Theatre is a compelling demonstration of the power of community-based adaptive reuse. It saved an Austin icon and a locally significant example of regional modern design in the commercial vernacular of the times.

Birth of a Roadside Icon

The Americana Theatre opened in 1965 and was an immediate success. According to an article in the Austin American newspaper, the theater “opened in dazzling Hollywood fashion” and “drew city and state officials, local theater executives and representatives of various major film companies.”[1] It featured rocking chair seats, an "exotic ladies lounge-color TV waiting area," and smoking facilities.

Newspaper clipping courtesy of the Austin History Center

The theater was designed with a single-screen auditorium, which was likely to have been one of the limitations that led to its short lifespan as a theater. (It was also one of the features of the building that allowed for some flexibility in its adaptive reuse.) According to John Gillum, City of Austin Library Facilities Manager and Program Manager for the renovation of the theater, the Americana was “the premier theater” for a time and “everyone of a certain age had stories.”[2] The theater not only served families, but also teenage and adult singles going on dates. According to Gillum, many people can recount stories of meeting sweethearts and future spouses at the Americana.

In newspaper articles, Earl Podolnick, the original owner of the Americana Theatre and former President of Trans-Texas Theatres Inc., was credited with the design of the Americana Theatre. Blueprints and renderings credit architect William B. Saunders. Saunders was a Texas-born architect who designed a variety of buildings around Austin and in the South. He was employed at the University of Texas, first as a draftsman, then as an architect, and finally as an Architect and Assistant to the Comptroller. Saunders designed the Printing Division Building on the University of Texas at Austin campus, which is now the Police Services Building. His other works included a dormitory in Cullman, Alabama and an Austin Independent School District building.

Rendering by William B. Saunders. Courtesy of the Austin History Center.

A rendering by William B. Saunders emphasizes a large porte-cochère that extends from the side entrance of the theater into an expansive parking lot. The dynamic arches of the porte-cochère form a connection and canopy between the parking lot and the building entrance that contrasts with the box-like volume of the theater. The box is broken by a slight upward sweep toward the facade that can be seen from the Americana's profile. The front of the 15,500 square foot theater building was covered with a stone veneer. A structural engineering report from the 1990s, reported that the quality of construction was “above average” and the steel porte-cochère was structurally unconventional.[3] (The undulating curves of the porte-cochère were common architectural vocabulary for a very brief window in the early to mid 1960s. They were used in designs across the country, from the canopy over the Seattle 1962 World's Fair Monorail to the entrances to commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings.) A freestanding illuminated sign, served to advertise the theater, a standard feature in commercial roadside site design.

Detail from specifications for the Americana Theatre (1964). Back lit plastic illuminated sign was not built. Design by William B. Saunders. Courtesy of the Austin Public Library.

As one of the founders of Trans-Texas Theaters, owner Earl Podolnick operated 15 theaters in Texas between 1960 and 1979. According to a November 17, 1992 obituary in the Austin American Statesman, he served as a president of the Texas Drive-In Theatre Owners Association and was a charter Board member of the National Association of Theatre Owners of Texas. According to a dedication flyer for the Yarborough Branch Library: “Mr. Podolnick championed an understanding among all people, opening the Austin movie theater and others he owned in Texas to people of color in the face of pickets and public pressure not to integrate.”

Decline of the Americana

By the 1980s, the theater was still notable, but in decline. In 1982 it was featured in Texas Monthly:

The Americana I find especially appealing, perhaps because I know it the best. Built in 1965, it is a solid, unadorned place filled with plush rocking seats that are as comfortable as easy chairs. Over the years, the Americana’s luster has diminished ever so slightly and purists will no doubt be shocked to find a few video games cluttering the lobby. Ah, but if you had been there in the old days. To have missed Lawrence of Arabia in such a place is like having missed Pavlova in Giselle. But one can’t look back forever. Even if the Americana chose to show nothing from now on but industrial training films, I would still feel obliged, as connoisseur, to buy a season pass. [4]
Below: Photos of interior lobby and exterior from structural evaluation (1992).

The theater closed in 1988. After its closure, it served for a time as a recording studio for Jay Podolnick, a local rock musician and son of Earl Podolnick. Earl Podolnick passed away in 1992, not long after the Americana was listed for sale.

The exterior of the Americana Theatre provided the backdrop for a scene in Richard Linklater's 1994 movie Dazed and Confused. As cheerleaders haze high school freshmen, squirting them with ketchup and mustard, one can see glimpses of the original porte-cochère and gold anodized aluminum framed windows and door.

A new use was to save the boxy volume of the Americana, if not all its original, elegant features.

The Search for a Permanent Home for the Neighborhood Library

Since the mid-1950s and under various names, a branch library served the surrounding residential neighborhoods at leased locations on and around Burnet Road. In 1956, the Northwest Branch opened at 5923 Burnet Road and in 1967 the Allandale Branch was located in the Allandale Shopping Center at 5802 Burnet Road. In the late 1970s, it was moved to the North Loop Shopping Center at 5230 Burnet Road and it was called the North Loop Area Branch. The North Loop Area Branch moved temporarily to a bank site in 1987 and then to what had been the M.M. O’Hair Atheist Center at 2210 Hancock Drive, next door to the Americana Theatre.

Location of the branch library at the former M.M. O'Hair Atheist Center prior to its move to the Americana Theatre/Yarborough Branch Library building. Photo from structural evaluation (1991). Courtesy of the Austin Public Library.

It was after the City of Austin lost its lease in 1987 that neighborhood associations in North Austin, and especially the Allandale Neighborhood, began to advocate for a permanent location for the library. According to Phyllis Brinkley, a long-time Allandale resident and neighborhood advocate, there was a prevalent fear that the neighborhood would eventually lose their branch library. Ms. Brinkley was instrumental in galvanizing support for a permanent home for the branch and eventually in organizing and supporting the reuse of the Americana Theatre.

The Americana Theatre remained vacant for several years while the City of Austin renovated the one-story former Atheist Center. The renovation was completed in 1990, which doubled the size of the branch to over 6,000 sq. ft. Around that time, Ms. Brinkley’s husband observed that the Americana Theatre was for sale. Ms. Brinkley notified others that the Americana might be an ideal location for the branch library.

A July 1991 Austin-American Statesman article highlighted the search for a permanent location, including investigation of the former Atheist Center building and the Americana. The article described problems identified in a structural analysis of the former Atheist Center. In the article, City of Austin Library Facilities Manager John Gillum is quoted as saying that renovation of both the office building and the Americana “…were a bit unusual for us. Usually libraries are built by the Public Works department to serve as libraries. They are designed to be libraries. Here we are trying to buy something that was never intended to be a library. It’s out of the ordinary.”[5]

In 1992 the City Council approved a proposal to put the purchase and stabilization of the Americana before the voters. The costs for the purchase, renovation, equipment, and books for the new branch library were estimated at $2.6 million. Voters approved a bond package that included the project. In March of 1993, the City Council approved purchase of the Americana for $285,000.

Although it may sound like the battle to reuse the Americana had been won, in fact it took Phyllis Brinkley and the Allandale neighborhood years of lobbying the City Council and speaking at Planning Commission, Library Commission, City Council and Capital Improvement Project budget meetings. According to Ms. Brinkley, the neighborhood association had to continuously organize to keep the project moving forward and to ensure adequate funding. The neighborhood also participated in the design process and specific suggestions from Ms. Brinkley appear in both City of Austin files and in elements in the final design for the building. The Allandale Neighborhood Association also raised funds to supplement city funding for public artwork in the library.

New Life, New Sustainable Design

HRB Rogers & Perry Architects was selected to design the adaptive reuse the Americana. They had experience adapting other movie theaters as bookstores. T. Michael Rogers, AIA (Mike Rogers) worked with the City of Austin to produce designs. According to John Gillum, Rogers was interested and involved in sustainable design. Gillum attributes many of the sustainable features of the adaptive reuse to the architect’s interest in sustainability. Mike Rogers completed a Sustainable Design Checklist for Municipal Buildings and submitted it to the Public Works Department and to the Library Facilities Department in 1996. The Sustainable Design Checklist had been developed in 1994 through the partnership of Austin Energy Green Building Program and the City of Austin Public Works Department.[6]

The Sustainable Design Checklist was not designed to rate buildings, as is the present-day Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System; instead, it was a checklist with optional considerations for the design of municipal buildings. The Austin Energy Green Building Program was later adapted into the LEED system by the U.S. Green Building Council. It can be considered an important prototype to what was later developed into a system that is used throughout the United States in the certification of green buildings.

Many of the interior features of the theater were removed in the adaptive reuse. Removal of 780+ plush theater seats and the leveling of the theater floor were formidable tasks. Unfortunately, plans to reuse the “Haywood Wakefield Rocking Chair” theater seat frames at either the University of Texas or in a Capital City Entertainment Center project fell through.

A few references to the original use of the building were maintained in the interior design for the building. On the north end, where the original screen had been, artists Dayna Beard-Isensee and Maria Camp were commissioned to provide a mural on large panels that are an allusion to the original movie screen. (The same artists produced a metal sculpture of birds in flight called "Flights of Fancy" that are also featured in the interior of the library.) The building also retains the second floor room that had been the projection booth. A projecting volume remains where the projection room was; instead of an opening for the projector there are large multi-color rectangular shapes in the wall.

Former projection booth still vaguely visible. Photo by Jenni Minner.

Murals were installed where the original screen was located. Photo by Jenni Minner.

Responding to the problem of bringing natural light into the windowless volume, skylights were cut into the ceiling. Large “cloud” light fixtures constructed out of light concrete were also designed to provide additional lighting. These daylighting techniques, paired with the cloud light fixtures, were creative solutions that contributed to the overall sustainability of the project.

A particular challenge in the adaptive reuse that influenced the character of both interior and exterior was the discovery of vermiculate, an asbestos-containing product had been used as wall insulation within concrete blocks. A solution was devised to place piping and mechanical equipment inside walls built within an additional layer wrapping around the inside of building. This prevented any disturbance of asbestos in the original building walls. The discovery of asbestos and its design solution meant that final plans contained no new windows in the building walls.

An additional challenge came when the original porte-cochère canopy was found to have structural damage. Ultimately, the original canopy was deemed unsalvageable and, unfortunately, the original port-cochere was not saved. The new port-cochere that was added to the building is very different and reflects a 1990s design aesthetic. While it was designed to reference the original, the geometric forms of the steel canopy did not go far in replicating the original.

The building was renamed the Yarborough Branch Library in honor of the late U.S. Senator from Texas Ralph Webster Yarborough (1903-1996). Yarborough was a leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic party and served as senator from 1957-1971. He was one of only five senators from the South to support the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and one of only three from the South who voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He co-wrote the Endangered Species Act of 1969 and he sponsored other bills aimed at environmental conservation, historic preservation, education, and public health. His bio is available on the Handbook of Texas On-line.

Adaptive Reuse of Austin's Commercial Modern

The history of the Yarborough Branch Library and its origins as a theater have important implications for understanding the development of commercial buildings and their potential reuse. The Americana Theater was an important piece of roadside architecture; unlike many other commercial buildings of its time, it was architect-designed. It exhibited functionalism in form and whimsy in the innovative design of the building’s porte-cochère. As a movie theater it provided leisure and social space for the developing residential neighborhoods and regional markets that had access via Burnet Road.

The Americana Theatre is a part of the story of modernism in Central Texas. This story should not be limited to canonical architects and high style architecture of the Modern Movement. It should include buildings such as the Americana that may not be well known beyond Austin's city limits, but contribute to a history of acceptance and adaptation of modern design approaches and vocabulary in a regional context. Its reuse as a new public space was an expression of widespread admiration for the theater and a testament to its importance in the everyday life of many Austinites.

Footnotes

[1] Bustin, John. “In Hollywood Fashion: Americana Theater Opens” in The Austin American, April 28, 1965.

[2] Interview with John Gillum, City of Austin Library Facilities Manager. (October 27, 2008).

[3] Jaster-Quintanilla & Associates, Incorporated (1992). p. 1-2.

[4] Harrigan, Stephan. “Illusions of Grandeur – Let's Not Go Out to the Lobby,” Texas Monthly Volume 10, Issue 10, October 1982, 158.

[5] Jayson, Sharon. “N. Loop Library study poses question,” Austin American Statesman. (July 1991), Neighbor Section, 1.

[6] Austin Energy, Austin Energy Green Building™—A Concise History. http://www.austinenergy.com/Energy%20Efficiency/Programs/Green%20Building

Special thanks to:

John Gillum, the Facilities Manager for the City of Austin Library System, was generous with his time and in providing access to his extensive project files. He provided entrée into a treasure trove of primary sources, including site plans, memoranda, faxes, etc. Bonita Synder-Jones, Managing Librarian at the Yarborough Branch, also provided valuable information from a building user and manager’s perspective. She provided a tour of the branch library and access to photographs and other materials located at the branch library. Phyllis Brinkley offered insights into personal and neighborhood involvement and shared an in-depth timeline of Allandale Neighborhood Association history that she authored. The Austin History Center provided access to biographical files about Earl Podolnick and other materials related to the Americana and its renovation.

Sources

Austin Energy. Ralph Yarborough Branch Library Information Sheet. Green Building Case Studies on the Austin Energy website. http://www.austinenergy.com/Energy%20Efficiency/Programs/Green%20Building/Resources/Case%20Studies/index.htm. Accessed March 18, 2009.

Austin Energy. About Austin Energy Green Building on the Austin Energy Website. http://www.austinenergy.com/Energy%20Efficiency/Programs/Green%20Building/About%20Us/index.htm. Accessed March 18, 2009.

Austin Energy. Austin Energy Green Building™ A Concise History

http://www.austinenergy.com/Energy%20Efficiency/Programs/Green%20Building/About%20Us/history.htm, Accessed March 18, 2009.

“A Tribute to Phyllis Brinkley.” Allandale Neighbor. Volume 22, Issue 2. March 2007.

Austin Energy. “Austin Energy Green Building – Concise History,” Austin Energy. http://www.austinenergy.com/Energy%20Efficiency/Programs/Green%20Building/About%20Us/history.htm.

Bustin, John. “In Hollywood Fashion: Americana Theater Opens” in The Austin American, April 28, 1965.

City of Austin. “Brentwood Neighborhood Planning Area,” City of Austin – Brentwood Neighborhood Planning Area. http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/zoning/brentwood.htm.

DeGennaro, Dorothy A, Publisher. ProFile 2004 The Architects Sourcebook. Nineteenth Edition, Norcross, Georgia: Dorothy A. DeGennaro, 2004.

“Earl Podolnick.” Austin American Statesman. November 17, 1992, Obituary section.

Gane, John F., Ed. American Architects Directory. Third Edition. R.R. Bowker Company, New York and London, 1970.

Harrigan, Stephan. “Illusions of Grandeur – Let’s Not Go Out to the Lobby,” Texas Monthly Volume 10, Issue 10, October 1982, 158.

Jayson, Sharon. “Renovated Austin theater replaces movies with books,” Austin American Statesman, January 9, 1999, Section B1.

Jayson, Sharon. “N. Loop Library study poses question,” Austin American Statesman, July 1991, Neighbor Section, 1.

Jaster-Quintanilla & Associates, Incorporated. “Structural Evaluation: 2210 Hancock Drive,” Austin, Texas: July 1991.

Jaster-Quintanilla & Associates, Incorporated. “Structural Evaluation: Americana Theater Building,” Austin, Texas: January 1992.

Kohl, George S., Editor. American Architects Directory. Second Edition. New York: R.R. Bowker Company, 1962.

Welling, David. Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2007.

1 comment:

  1. There is much more to the Americana Theater's story than is in this article. Unfortunately, this article is not completely accurate, and the Podolnick family would have appreciated if the writer would have consulted with the family first before writing and publishing this piece.

    ReplyDelete