The crowd slowly gathering outside the former grand movie theater on a Sunday afternoon is not so different from the crowd that used to gather in this same spot a few decades ago. These people, however, are not here for a show, but to attend a religious service. In Lima, these vintage cinemas no longer show movies, but have found a myriad of new uses: as supermarkets, nightclubs and, most notably, as religious temples.
The first movie show in Lima took place in 1897, and the city’s first movie houses were built within a decade. One of the earliest movie palaces, the Colon, opened in 1914 and was designed in an ornate Beaux-Arts style by the architect Claude Sahut. Many mid-century theaters, from grand movie palaces to small neighborhood theaters, adopted the Art-Deco style.
Most of these theaters, however, closed between the 1970s and 1990s, victims of the same larger global economic and social trends that affected cinemas in many countries (television becoming the primary mode of entertainment, suburbanization, among others), but also due to some unique local situations, like terrorism. In his book Ilusiones a Oscuras (Dark Illusions), architect Victor Mejia Ticona describes some of the challenges that cinemas faced during the 1980s and early 1990s: terrorists often targeted electricity infrastructure, which caused massive blackouts that sunk the city into darkness. When these blackouts happened during a show, tickets had to be refunded, seriously cutting into theaters’ profitability in the midst of an already harsh economic and political climate.
Although many of these theaters stopped showing movies and started falling into disrepair, many became home to religious groups, particularly Evangelical churches. According to Mejia Ticona, theaters were often centrally located, easily accessible by public transportation, could hold many people comfortably seated, and had the advantage of a raised stage and good acoustics. These qualities made them ideal for the theatrical and performance-like quality of these religious services. This type of adaptive reuse became popular not only in Peru, but also in other countries including the United States, some examples being the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles, and the Central Park Theater in Chicago (although the church closed in February 2013). Although many of these churches left the theaters relatively intact, others did extensive and sometimes controversial transformations which obscured these buildings’ past as movie houses.
Although a few of these old theaters, like the Pacifico Cinema (1958), are still showing movies, it can be said that most of these cinemas belong to a city that does not really exist anymore, to a city whose citizens have changed significantly. These theaters are victims of a process known as creative destruction, which is described by political scientist Douglas Rae as a capitalism which drives growth by remorselessly refusing to preserve the past. Saving these theaters, even if only because of their significance and meaning, requires finding creative new uses for them in ways that do not obscure their character and past. These are cases where preservation for preservation’s sake is not enough, and where critical conservation and adaptive reuse are more viable options.
How do we decide whether a building should be preserved as a relic and memorial of the past, allowed to go gracefully, or adapted to a new use?
Credits: Images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources.