Thursday, April 4, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Sleek, tall and modern, a marked contrast from the surrounding strip malls and gas stations, the historic Huntridge Theatre was supposed to be open to the public from time to time. The owners were supposed to repair its interior, secure the exterior and allow the state to inspect it.
Instead, the 75-year-old Downtown structure on Charleston Boulevard, which has been closed since 2004, has fallen into further disrepair over the past several years, hasn’t been opened once and is frequently surrounded by trash and debris, according to reports from the state.
That’s why the Nevada Commission for Cultural Centers and Historic Preservation has filed litigation against Huntridge owner Eli Mizrachi, alleging that the Las Vegas local has defied court orders and covenants requiring him to preserve the building and make it accessible to the community and the state agency for inspections.
The legislation comes three years after an earlier lawsuit against the owner ended in settlement, which offered Mizrachi a final opportunity to improve the building and open it at least 12 days per year. But Mizrachi, who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grants to maintain and repair the building, failed to comply with the settlement terms and could be held in contempt of court, the new suit states.
Built by prominent modernist architect S. Charles Lee, the Huntridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, opened as a cinema in 1944 for the burgeoning residential Huntridge neighborhood. In the 1990s, it was taken over by the nonprofit Friends of the Huntridge Theatre, which eventually sold it to Mizrachi in 2002 for $925,000. Mizrachi kept it up and running as a concert venue until 2004.
Since its closing, there have been multiple efforts to “save” the theater, including a crowdfunding campaign in 2013 that raised more than $200,000 to purchase the property. But the funding wasn’t enough for much more than a new paint job, and rumors that some private parties might purchase the building have yet to materialize.
Meanwhile, the building has become the site of homeless encampments and trash, and the interior suffers from damage to the ceilings, floor tiles and walls, the suit alleges. Additional damage to the exterior of the building and inadequate security lighting has been observed by the Commission for Cultural Centers and Historic Preservation as well.
“It makes sense that there’s a lawsuit,” said Derek Stonebarger, a longtime Huntridge neighborhood resident. “State or city funds were given to the owners to use to do something with the building, and the funds were misappropriated. That’s obvious.”
The next court hearing for the case is scheduled for May 29. Representatives of the Attorney General’s Office and the commission declined to comment on the case.
Given that the state has already gone through the process of suing Mizrachi and his businesses, ECT Holdings LLC and King George LLC, it remains to be seen whether this new suit will pressure the owners to do something with the Huntridge—or to sell.
“On the one hand, it’s a good move because it safeguards taxpayer dollars,” said Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, whose district includes the theater. “I’m also hopeful that this will be enough of a push that the current owners will sell the building at a reasonable price.”
Swank is open to the theater being adaptively reused, or repurposed for something different than its original intended use. In fact, she wonders if an operating theater at this location would be overshadowed by venues on the Strip.
“We could make it something other than a theater but retain the exterior,” she said. “That’s going to be the best way forward, because it’s so hard to compete with the Strip.”
Mizrachi, who could not be reached for comment, expressed interest over the years in transforming the property into something else, such as a secondhand store, while maintaining its historic exterior, neighbors recalled.
“They had great plans for redevelopment,” said longtime resident Kathleen Kahr D’Esposito. “Then there was the horrible real estate meltdown; those plans were abandoned, and the building just sat there.”
And while some in the neighborhood, such as Daniel Roberts of the nonprofit Huntridge Foundation, are wary of veering from the structure’s original purpose, D’Esposito just wants to see something happen. If the building were to be demolished, she said, it might turn into a “tent setting” for the homeless in the area.
“That’s really going to be trouble for the neighborhood if that thing is brought to the ground,” she said. “There has to be a plan in place.”
Others are almost ready to give up on the historic property, as the Huntridge neighborhood has other issues to mull over. For example, Huntridge Circle Park, which some say has been plagued by homelessness and crime for years, is slated to be upgraded into a space for leisure and public art, per a recent proposal from local developer J Dapper.
“We’re tackling one problem at Huntridge at a time,” said Ward 3 City Councilman Bob Coffin, whose district includes the neighborhood.
For Swank, an advocate of historic preservation in Nevada, the Huntridge Theatre is far from a lost cause, and the significance of architect S. Charles Lee is enough to merit its preservation—as long as it comes with a plan.
“People think of it a lot as community history, but because it’s associated with that architect, it’s a big piece of American history, too,” Swank said. “And it’s totally salvageable.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.