Our Town with William Kelly: Playhouse Demolition Discussion

William Kelly  |  Our Town  |  August 15, 2023

A town board will review the Royal Poinciana Playhouse reconstruction project on Wednesday amid concerns that extensive demolition of the landmarked building may have exceeded town-approved plans.

The demolition is on the agenda for the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s meeting beginning at 9:30 a.m. in Town Hall.

Some landmarks commissioners, Town Council members and residents have said they were surprised last month to discover the near-total razing of the 34,517-square-foot playhouse, which is now without many of its external walls.

WS Development, the project developer, says the demolition falls entirely within the renovation plans approved by the landmarks board last year. The new development, due to open in late 2024, will include a cultural arts center and waterfront restaurant.

The razing of some external walls was necessary to accommodate structural support of the future building, Alexandra Clark, vice president of asset strategy and experience for WS Development, said last month. She said the walls will be rebuilt “like for like.”

The landmarks board granted a Certificate of Appropriateness – the official approval for renovation of a landmarked building – after a project review early in 2022. But Clark said borings by geotechnical engineers subsequently revealed the soil beneath the playhouse to be muck. Structural engineers also found the walls were seriously compromised. Clark reported the findings to the landmarks board during a project update at its meeting in November.

“The demolition is not more than contemplated, it is what we discussed last year and what was subsequently in our building permit,” she told the Palm Beach Civic Association.

Clark was responding to questions for an Our Town news article after Landmarks Commissioner Brittain Damgard raised the issue at the panel’s July 19 meeting. Damgard said she had noticed that most of the playhouse had been razed, and that the extent of the demolition appeared to her to have exceeded the approved plans.

The curved east façade of the playhouse has been preserved and braced until it can be attached to the support system of the future building. Also stabilized and protected is the Celebrity Room ceiling mural and surrounding infrastructure, according to Clark.

Wayne Bergman, the town’s zoning director, told the commission at its July 19 meeting that historic renovations often involve extensive reconstruction: “In many cases, historic buildings, instead of being restored, are actually being rebuilt.”

In an email the next day, responding to questions for this story, Bergman wrote, “All of the demolition to date appears to have been reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.”

But, at the August 8 Town Council meeting, Councilwoman Julie Araskog said she was “devastated” after returning from vacation to discover the playhouse mostly gone.

Araskog said she listened to recordings of Clark’s November update before the landmarks board and that she doesn’t believe it was clear that so much of the building would be razed.

Councilman Ted Cooney said he has spent hours listening to meeting tapes and talking to staff and experts to understand what happened.

“I did not expect this level of demolition,” said Cooney, who was chairman of the landmarks panel for eight years before he was elected to the council in 2021. “I was very surprised.”

Architects working on the project for WS Development are expected to appear before the commission at Wednesday’s meeting to discuss the project and answer questions.

The playhouse is one of three landmarked buildings that have recently attracted attention because of the extensive demolition performed as part of their renovation. The other two are a house on Monterey Road and the town-owned North Fire Station. The century-old fire station has been demolished except for the external walls as part of that rehabilitation project; town officials said the interior walls, roof and foundation were not salvageable.

All three buildings are on the agenda for discussion at Wednesday’s meeting.

The 860-seat playhouse at 70 Royal Poinciana Plaza was designed by architect John Volk and opened in 1958. A thriving social and cultural arts center for decades, the theater has been shuttered since its last tenant, Clear Channel Communications, left in 2004.

The renovation began in 2022 following years of public debate about the future of the building and a longtime search for a viable tenant. Plans call for the new cultural arts center with up to 400 seats, a 200-seat waterfront restaurant, and 12,000 square feet of retail and gallery space. The redesign includes the addition of floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the Lake Worth Lagoon, and a retractable backdrop wall that can be used during performances.

New Arts Center

INNOVATE, a publicly held company chaired by Palm Beach resident Avram “Avie” Glazer, will operate the programming for the arts center, which Glazer has said will include art exhibitions, films, music, dance, plays, conferences and lectures.

In an Aug. 14 letter to Mayor Danielle Moore and the council, Avie Glazer and his wife, Jill Glazer, a Palm Beach Civic Association director, wrote that the new arts center will be a “state-of-the-art, sustainable venue, featuring a 400-seat black box theater, multiple event spaces, a lifelong learning center, top-notch patron amenities, and advanced technology for live-streamed performances.”

In a Jan. 31, 2022 letter to the landmarks commission, Civic Association President Mary Robosson expressed confidence in the plan for WS Development to partner with INNOVATE.

Robosson wrote, “As Avie Glazer has said, the Royal Poinciana Playhouse has languished in the dark for far too long. It is time to turn on the lights and bring this jewel back to life.”

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