Long known as a local iconic hot spot, the Heights Theater will now forever be etched into this nation’s history.
Last Monday, the owner of the Heights Theater received news he had waited a long time to hear. Edwin Cabaniss’ newly preserved and lovingly restored theater on 19th Street was officially accepted into the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that is not easy to achieve, but the highest honor a preservationist’s work can receive. Cabaniss was elated, as are all who value Houston’s history.
“We had our sights on this designation even before we bought the theater. It’s been a tedious process and a lot of work getting here, but today is indeed a very good day,” Cabaniss stated.
The original theater was constructed in 1928 in the Mission style by a Heights family who operated it as a movie theater. It quickly became the center of activity in the community. In 1935, the facade was modernized into the Art Deco style popular at the time, and remains the way we see it today.
In 1968, the theater fell victim to arson. “I am Curious Yellow” was showing at the time which was considered controversial and “XXX.” The Houston Fire Department considered a number of suspects; a church was boycotting the theater at the time of the fire, and literature from the Ku Klux Klan was discovered stuffed into the seats afterward. No one was ever charged.
After remaining vacant for 20 years, Heights residents Gus Koprivas and his wife Sharon purchased the property in 1988 for less than $50,000, and started to semi-restore it. The theater soon became the icon of the historic Heights.
In 2015, the Koprivas listed the building for sale for $1,900,000. There were many offers but it was purchased by Dallas developer Cabaniss soon after. A dedicated preservationist, he went right to work.
There were many set-backs. It turned out that the rear of the building was four inches lower than the front, requiring major engineering to level. The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, required that the floor in the entry to be level and wheelchair compliant. It wasn’t.
“The entry was also all original tile from the building’s construction in 1928,” explained Cabaniss. “Each little tile had to be removed by hand according to historic code. We chipped out each existing tile carefully, then built the floor up, and re-laid the tile to bring the entry into compliance.”
Those tiny tiles have served the feet of people from Houston’s history. Dr. Denton Cooley, Gene Autry, Dan Rather, and Bonnie and Clyde have visited the theater, not to mention the family members of many others.
“We love to see projects such as the Heights Theater,” stated Jim Parsons, Director of Special Projects for Preservation Houston, a city-wide not-profit agency dedicated to organizing and advocating for historic preservation. “We are proud of all the recognition the theater is getting, and the wonderful job that the new owner has done. Imagine if those tiny tiles were just cast aside. A part of our history would be lost forever.”
Cabaniss understands that, and as such, pushed hard for the designation.
“We now have historic protections on for the theater on three levels – at the city level, with the state of Texas, which has quite a bite to it, and finally, federal historic recognition. That trumps them all. We are satisfied that 100 years from now, the Heights Theater will remain as it is. It will remain the Heights Theater for perpetuity and we couldn’t happier,” Cabaniss concluded.