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Activists prepare for Franklin Square theater landmark vote

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As the Hempstead Town Board prepared to set a date for a public hearing on whether to designate a Franklin Square movie theater as a historic landmark, local activists gathered at the Franklin Square Library on July 30 to offer support for the application.

“This is really a community effort,” said Katherine Tarascio, a Franklin Square Civic Association member who helped lead the charge for landmark designation, adding that the theater “is really an asset for the Town of Hempstead.”

The Franklin Theatre was built in 1933 by Abraham Schwartz, an architect known for his “model tenement” buildings and movie theaters in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, according to Tarascio. In its heyday, she said, movie-goers dressed up for the theater, where they could get dinnerware and stained glass for free, or win money on Bank Night.

Over the years, the theater underwent several renovations. In 1963, the flagpole and marquee were removed, and in 1980 the theater was expanded to make it a duplex. In 2001, light boxes advertising current movies were installed, and the building was painted maroon.

Still, Tarascio said, the original brickwork is visible, as are several of the Art Deco motifs. It is now one of only a few Art Deco structures still standing in the Town of Hempstead, and is believed to be the only Art Deco movie theater in the town.

“It really is part of a dwindling genre of buildings in the Town of Hempstead,” Tarascio said, explaining that it should be preserved to protect the history of Franklin Square and the town.

“When you preserve a building, you’re sort of incubating the small businesses around it,” she told the residents in the audience. “So if we demolish that building and put up . . . a box store, you’re sort of ruining that mom-and-pop shop aesthetic and environment that we have going on down there.”

The theater, on Hempstead Turnpike in Franklin Square’s downtown area, is owned by Nauman Hussain, who last year submitted plans to the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals to convert Synergy Fitness, an AT&T store and a jewelry store into a 658-unit storage facility. Those plans did not include the demolition of the movie theater, but Tarascio said she and other residents feared that once Bow Tie Cinema’s lease ends in three years, Hussain might demolish the theater to build a parking lot for the storage facility. 

To prevent that from happening, Tarascio and members of the Community League of South Garden City Inc. submitted an application for landmark status to the town’s Landmark Preservation Commission, which voted unanimously on Nov. 20 to proceed with a hearing on landmark status, and on July 21, Councilman Bruce Blakeman requested that the Town Board set a date in September for the public hearing. The zoning board cannot decide on the plans until the Town Board decides on the theater’s landmark status.

“When it became clear that the future of this historical building was in jeopardy, we needed to act quickly,” Blakeman said in a statement.

According to town code, however, the Town Board must decide on landmark status within 90 days of the Landmark Preservation Commission’s decision.

Mitchell Pitnick, counselor to Town Supervisor Laura Gillen, said that her office has reached out to the town attorney about the issue. While the application would not have to go through the entire approval process again, the commission may have to re-authorize its decision, he said.

Debbie Pugliese, from Blakeman’s office, also noted that the commission does not meet regularly over the summer, which giving the Town Board some leeway to approve projects.

“As soon as we knew about this, we put it on the calendar,” Pugliese said.

The Town Board was set to vote on a public hearing on Tuesday, after the Herald went to press. The public hearing would either be held on Sept. 3, at 10:30 a.m., or on Sept. 24, at 7 p.m., at Hempstead Town Hall.

Saving the Woolworth building

In addition to the application to preserve the movie theater, Margaret Kelly, the president of the Garden City South Community League, submitted an application to the landmark commission to recognize the former Woolworth building as a historic landmark.

It was built in 1951, and although it is now the site of Synergy Fitness, it retains the Woolworth name on top of the building. Kelly also said that other former Woolworth buildings across the country have been granted historic status solely because they once housed Woolworth Department Stores, where shoppers could buy everything from household goods to food.

She said she submitted the application in response to news that a developer wanted to build a storage facility on the site, and said that while landmark status would not deter a developer from renting out the business, he or she would have to maintain the exterior of the building.

“We’re hoping that the hub of Franklin Square stay the hub of Franklin Square,” Kelly said, adding that she was confident that the commission would approve her application.