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Town to vote on F.S. theater landmark status

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The Town of Hempstead Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously voted to recommend the Franklin Square Theater for landmark status on Feb. 26. The theater, which is located near the corner of Hempstead Turnpike and Franklin Square, originally opened in 1933 and stands as one of a few remaining art-deco buildings in the town.

“There is a compelling rarity to this structure,” Landmarks Preservation Commission board member Paul van Wie said. “There structures are extremely rare in the Town of Hempstead.”

This decision came as a relief for local residents who have been fighting to name the theater a landmark after the property owner, Nauman Hussain, submitted permits last November for the construction of a three-story, self-storage building adjacent to the theater. Although there are no plans to modify the theater, residents were worried that the theater might be torn down once the lease for the property’s current operator, Bow-Tie Cinemas, ends in a few of years.

While local residents originally tried to sway the Landmarks Preservation Commission with stories about first dates, school trips and what the theater meant to them, it was ultimately the building’s storied architectural structure that persuaded the board. Katherine Tarascio, of the Franklin Square Civic Association, described the theater’s brickwork and decorative arch motif as distinctly in the art-deco style, which was embraced by American architects throughout the 1920s and 30s as a sign of modernity.

One such architect was Long Island movie mogul Abraham Schwartz, who built more than 50 movie houses across the island and New York City. While the Franklin Square Theater’s interior has been completely renovated throughout the years, much of the changes to its exterior were much less significant — consisting mostly of paint jobs. Tarascio added that the removal of the theater’s original marquee in the 1960s was technically still a cosmetic change rather than a major augmentation.

“Schwartz would definitely recognize his theater if he drove by it today,” Tarascio said, refuting a previous claim to the contrary by opposition during a landmark hearing last November. “The Suffolk Theater likes to say that they’re the last of the Long Island art-deco theaters design by Schwartz, but our Franklin Square Theater is still here.”

Attorney Christian Browne, representing Hussain, argued that the theater wasn’t unusual enough to be registered a landmark in the town. Browne said the building had been altered too many times throughout the decades and reminded residents that there was no obligation on Hussain’s part to keep the building a movie theater should Bow-Tie leave, which he hinted could be a possibility as, “it does have a sluggish cash flow.”

“We fear that if it’s granted landmark status, the community would be saddled with this needless structure,” Browne said. “You would just be preserving the shell of a 1970s movie theater since it doesn’t even have its original design.”

Despite the documented changes the theater has undergone, Society for the Preservation of Long Island Director Sarah Kautz said the Franklin Square theater was still an interesting example art deco on Long Island. Kautz described the arch motif as reminiscent of Egyptian Revival architecture, which sprung up around the same time as art deco. The two styles complimented each other and were often mixed together, which Kautz said explained the temple-like appearance of the theater.

“Art deco is so rare on Long Island, especially from this period,” she said. “We’ve lost so much of this style over the years.”

Other residents also sought to include the adjacent property across the street — where Synergy Fitness will move as it prepares to convert its current location to a storage faculty — as a landmark since it was once home to one of the iconic F.W. Woolworth’s five-and-dime stores. Although Woolworth’s was seen as one of the nation’s most successful supermarket chains in the 1950s, Edwards said he believed residents were “pushing it” when they suggested the site should be a landmark.

A decision has yet to be made over the Woolworth’s building. Ellen Andrasick, of the Community League of Garden City South, said that efforts were underway to create a historic district across Hempstead Turnpike from Lexington Avenue to Lincoln Avenue. The area would encompass the Woolworth’s building, the Franklin Square Theater and the already landmarked Chase Bank. It would also be adjacent to another landmark, the Herman House on Herman Boulevard.

“We want the individuality of this town, the history it possesses, to remain for generations to come,” Andrasick said as she read a letter prepared from her organization.

While the Town of Hempstead does not currently recognize historical districts, the Landmarks Preservation Commission did vote to look into the matter in order to promote areas of historical significance in the town. The board has yet to decide what constitutes a historical district and will be looking to neighboring municipalities for ideas.

The Hempstead Town Board is scheduled to vote on whether or not to grant the Franklin Square Theater landmark status in a future board meeting. Local residents will be able to speak before the board during the meeting prior to the board’s decision.