Town Council members expressed surprise and concern Tuesday at the extensive demolition performed on the landmarked Royal Poinciana Playhouse.
The playhouse has been undergoing exterior and interior demolition as part of a redevelopment plan approved by the Landmarked Preservation Commission in 2022. Plans call for converting it into a new 400-seat cultural arts center with retail and gallery space and a 200-seat waterfront restaurant.
Town Councilwoman Julie Araskog said at Tuesday’s council meeting that the extent of the demolition appeared to her to have exceeded the plans approved by the commission.
“I was so devastated when I came back from being away for two weeks and came over the north [Flagler] bridge and saw no more of the playhouse,” Araskog said. “’Gobsmacked’ isn’t even a word that reveals how I felt.”
The interior of the 860-seat theater is now gone, and the razing of some external walls was necessary to accommodate structural support for the future building, according to Alexandra Clark, vice president of asset strategy and experience for WS Development, the project developer. But she said those walls will be rebuilt.
“We saved what we could, and what is ‘missing’ today is simply because we needed to take [the walls] down and rebuild them,” she wrote in an email Wednesday responding to questions for this article.
The curved east façade of the 860-seat playhouse has been preserved and braced until it can be attached to the new support structure. The Celebrity Room ceiling mural and surrounding infrastructure has also been stabilized and protected in place, Clark has said.
The demolition is within the scope of the building permit and plans approved by the commission, Clark said in an interview last month after landmarks commissioner Brittain Damgard questioned the extent of the demolition at the commission’s July 19 meeting.
In a July 20 email answering questions submitted to him by the Palm Beach Civic Association, Zoning Director Wayne Bergman wrote, “All of the demolition conducted to date appears to have been reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission … Much of what has been demolished will be rebuilt on better foundations, per the approved plans.”
The playhouse demolition has been placed on the agenda for discussion at the landmarks commission’s Aug. 16 meeting. Representatives of WS Development have been asked to attend the meeting, according to town staff.
The playhouse demolition will be reviewed along with the extensive razing of two other landmarked buildings in town – the town-owned North Fire Station and a house on Monterey Road. The North Fire Station has been gutted, with only the exterior walls remaining, as part of plans to renovate and reopen the century-old structure. Town officials said the building’s roof, interior and foundation were not salvageable.
On Tuesday, council members expressed a desire to place the playhouse demolition on the agenda for discussion at a future council meeting, possibly in September. But they agreed that the matter should first go before the landmarks board.
Councilman Ted Cooney said he has spent hours talking to staff and experts and listening to recordings of meetings 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.”
Cooney continued, “I want to give the Landmarks Preservation Commission the opportunity to take the lead … but I do think we owe the public an explanation, an accounting of how and why, and what we’re going to do differently going forward.”
Council President Margaret Zeidman and members Lew Crampton and Bobbie Lindsay agreed the matter should go to the landmarks board before council.
“We’re dealing with a post-mortem here,” Lindsay said of the playhouse. “But we need to deal with the process and make sure we aren’t surprised in the future.”
The original certificate of appropriateness the landmarks board issued for the project last year had a defined level of interior and exterior demolition, according to Bergman. But, during a follow-up presentation in November, Clark told the landmarks commission that borings by geotechnical engineers revealed the soil beneath the playhouse to be muck. She said structural engineers found that the walls of the building were compromised.
To successfully restore the building and avoid future settlement issues, the developer identified parts of the playhouse that needed to be rebuilt, “like for like,” to enable the subsurface work and ensure durability and longevity for the building, Clark said.
In his July 20 email, Bergman appeared to support that explanation, writing, “The [November] presentation expanded the extent of the demolition after the building walls and foundations had been evaluated.”
But Araskog was not convinced, saying that she had listened to recordings of the November landmarks meeting and that the board did not receive a full presentation with illustrations of the changes.
“It was not evident what was really going on,” Araskog said. “Our landmarks commission did not know.”
Designed by architect John Volk in the Regency style, the playhouse opened in 1958 and was a cultural and performing arts center in Palm Beach for decades. It has been shuttered since 2004, following the departure of its last tenant, Clear Channel Communications.
The new development is scheduled to open late in 2024. Nearly 8,000 square feet will be added to the original 34,517-square-foot building as part of a plan to create 12,000 square feet of retail and gallery space. INNOVATE, a publicly held company chaired by Palm Beach resident Avram “Avie” Glazer, will operate the programming for the cultural arts center, which Glazer has said will include art exhibitions, films, music, dance, plays, conferences and lectures.
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