In 1914, the Richmond Theater opened at 815 1/2 King Street in Alexandria, Virginia, just south of the nation’s capital. It was a beacon of culture run by two entertainers, B. Hamill Reed and R. A. Steele. As with most ventures, though, time took its toll, and after ownership transitions and a name change to the Old Town Theater, the venue had found itself in bad shape by 2012, ultimately closing because of poor ticket sales. The building might well have shared the fate of other crumbling grand theaters of the past had it not been for PMA Properties, but the firm was at first an unlikely savior.
“It’s a theater; it has no future,” PMA president Rob Kaufman recalls saying when he bought the space the same year that it closed. “I would sooner acquire the property and turn it into something nice than let somebody else buy it and run it as a slipshod theater.” He originally planned to turn the 5,000-square-foot venue into a mixed-use retail center, but as he and his team began carefully removing trash and drywall, slowly unearthing hidden rooms, windows, staircases, and an extra 2,000 square feet of space in the process, he became more hesitant to dismiss the building’s storied past.
For more than 30 years, PMA has specialized in the rehabilitation of unique historical buildings, converting them for commercial, residential, and corporate use by combining modern comfort with retro charm. The company, which earns $10 million in annual net revenue, is more accustomed to repurposing buildings—currently it’s working on a former 39-room hotel that was converted into an office in 1960 before PMA decided to turn it back into an apartment and hotel space—but after two months of demolition, Kaufman decided he couldn’t do the same to the Old Town Theater. “The deeper we got into the demolition, the more intriguing the building became in its original form,” Kaufman says. “I decided that I just couldn’t gut this building. I had to do something to retain what was so interesting.”
“The deeper we got into the demolition, the more intriguing the building became in its original form. I had to do something to retain what was so interesting.”
—Rob Kaufman, Owner & Founder
The building was still in ramshackle shape, though. Its roof was leaking, and its pipes were rusted, so PMA removed everything extraneous to expose the building’s bones. Kaufman and his team ripped out an eight-foot-tall ceiling in the lobby and discovered the original 21-foot ceiling above, complete with windows looking out on the street. Work on the windows led to the additional discovery of a three-foot-wide hallway on the second floor, and the removal of the walls in that hallway revealed an old staircase that hadn’t been seen in 90 years. Behind the drywall and wood framing that PMA removed with expert precision, cast-iron trimming and molding sat preserved. The whole upper level turned out to be an old dance hall that had been completely buried. And, after tearing up seats and doing a little research, PMA realized that the floor below used to be a vaudeville theater.
One thing kept leading to another, and the deeper Kaufman got into the surgical demolition, the more apparent it became that a gut rehab was out of the question. His company began to interview theater operators of every type to find somebody who could legitimately run a live venue, and after countless meetings, it chose an applicant.
PMA upgraded the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems but otherwise stuck simply to uncovering and rehabbing the building’s original elements. The one detail that doesn’t match up is the new front marquee, which was instead designed to resemble one from the 1930s, when marquees first began to appear.
The revamped Old Town Theater officially opened in January 2013—with a full calendar of live acts and plenty of enthusiasm from local citizens. “This strong pledge of support from the entire community has helped to breathe new life into this old building,” Kaufman said in a July 9, 2012, OldTownAlexandria Patch article. The project has taught him that historical spaces don’t always need new functions; sometimes they just need a facelift.