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Visual Arts Showcase

This rejuvenated Art Deco theater can show vintage movies — or broadcast the most up-to-date high-tech presentations worldwide.

January 01, 2004 |

After a run of nearly 50 years, the Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Md., shut its doors in 1986. It remained vacant until last April, when it reopened as the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center, following an ambitious restoration and upgrading.

The recast and expanded facility, enlarged by 32,000 sf of new construction, includes the refurbished original building as well as two new theaters — one seating 200, the other, 75. All three of the theaters are equipped for state-of-the-art presentations.

The theater was built in 1938 by William Alexander Julian, treasurer of the United States under Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the centerpiece of an Art Deco-styled shopping center. John Eberson, the architect, was a noted theater designer and a champion of the atmospheric style — a genre that was intended to figuratively transport the audience to exotic locales. Eberson combined elements of the atmospheric and Deco/Moderne movements to create the Silver Theater's nautically inspired design. Its exterior signage, brick chimney, and side portal were among the design elements that gave theatergoers the romantic feeling of boarding an ocean liner.

The Art Deco Society of Washington was instrumental in staving off the theater's demolition and obtaining its historic designation. In 1994, Montgomery County added the theater to its master plan for Historic Preservation.

Three years later, County Executive Douglas Duncan approached the American Film Institute — a Los Angeles-based organization whose goal is to advance and preserve film, television, and other forms of moving images — about rehabilitating the theater as an anchor in a community revitalization plan. AFI, which was using the Kennedy Center as a performance venue, was looking to expand its programming in the Washington area.

Montgomery County put up $25 million for the project and rents the facility to AFI for $10 a year with a 10-year renewable lease. Adjacent to the Silver Theater's administrative area is flex space for a legitimate venue — the Round House Theater — which can seat 150, depending on its configuration. In addition, the original shopping center is reopening with the completion of new construction behind the preserved store façades.

A marriage of high-tech and Deco

The Building Team confronted a seriously deteriorated structure with extensive water damage, according to Michael Darner, project manager for architect Gensler. "The interior was in sad shape," he says. "We pretty much had to do a reconstruction because a lot of the original detail was not salvageable." The team had access to 27 pages of original construction documents, but most of the original design features were visible only in black-and-white photos.

Maintaining the Deco/Moderne imagery was difficult because the theater's original proscenium arch was designed to accommodate a 41-foot-wide screen for 35mm films. To create the wider screen needed for 70mm films, the side panels of the proscenium arch can be rotated out of the way.

The number of seats in the original theater was reduced from 1,100 to 400, with 22-inch-wide seats replacing the old 19-inch-wide seats. Center aisles were removed, and the rows between seats were widened to four feet.

The transition space between the original building and the new construction is also the building's entry corridor. It incorporates an original exterior wall, which was previously hidden by an adjacent building. Nautical themes, such as circular windows, are integrated into the wall.

But it is the technological upgrading that makes the AFI Silver Theater such a wonderful mix of vintage and ultramodern. Custom-built German projectors can operate in forward or reverse, and at various speeds. Some projectors provide closed captioning.

The facility can handle a broad range of media, including 16mm, 35mm, and 70mm film and high-definition video, as well as sound systems no longer in general use, such as those for 1950s-era four-track, magnetically striped films. Says AFI deputy director Ray Barry, the theater showcases "the technology of the future, past and present."

In addition, the facility has the capability for live teleconferencing, the presentation of live video mixed with graphics, and radio recording and broadcasting. Wall ports in all three theaters allow cameras to transmit images to the central technology area and shift them from on screen to another.

It is not immediately apparent that the theater is an international broadcast center as well as a movie house. But with its full digital-editing capability and ability to transmit or receive broadcasts, it is much more than a neighborhood cinema. For example, a Discovery Communications meeting held in the theater was transmitted to 30 countries.

Mixing mediums

Three new systems — digital cinema film projection, sound, and video — were squeezed into the theater under the direction of Clark Pond Associates, Ipswich, Mass., whose Cary Friedman summed up the work this way: "The biggest issue was maintaining the building's Art Deco nature and functionality while creating one of the world's most technically sophisticated theaters."

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