CAPE MAY - A crucial vote Thursday night on the demolition of a beachside movie theater could endanger this seashore town's prestigious designation as a National Historic Landmark City.
The town has long traded on Victoriana and gingerbread architecture to annually draw tens of thousands of history-loving tourists away from Shore towns that offer only sun and sand. But demolitions and development pressures in recent years have been eroding that special designation.
The Beach Theatre, which opened in 1950, is at the center of the latest tug-of-war between developers and preservationists.
Frank Theatres, based in Jupiter, Fla., bought the property in 1986 and operated it as a multiplex until 2006, when it announced that Cape May's last movie theater would be demolished and the property redeveloped.
A volunteer organization called the Beach Theatre Foundation formed five years ago to try to save the property, arguing that it characterizes the mid-20th-century development of the town as a Jersey Shore resort.
Few of the 2,500 historic landmarks designated by the National Park Service include entire towns; most places are cataloged only as individual sites or small districts within cities. Cape May's hard-won designation was bestowed in 1976, just as preservationists were beginning to salvage the extensive collection of Victorian structures from the wrecking ball.
The move spawned the largest bed-and-breakfast district in the country, while helping to preserve about 900 historic structures. Many of those had been slated to be torn down as part of an ill-fated urban renewal in the early 1970s.
While the designation can help save buildings, it can't prevent developers from razing properties. Despite preservation efforts, since 2002 Cape May has been on a Park Service "watch list" of places in danger of losing the landmark designation.
The Park Service won't be specific about how Cape May got on the watch list - or what ultimately could cost it the esteemed landmark designation - but pressures from development during a Shore real estate boom early last decade and the loss of some key structures over the last decade are the likely culprits, a Park Service spokesman said.
"When you think of the Jersey Shore, you think of development, so it wouldn't be out of the question that the development that has been going in Cape May, certainly during the recent boom, has contributed to the town being placed on the watch list," said Phil Sheridan, a spokesman for the Park Service's Northeast region.
He would not say what could tip the scale either way, but indicated that the Park Service has removed National Historic Landmark status "when the historical integrity of a site has become compromised" because of demolition or alteration.
Mayor Edward Mahaney Jr. is so worried about losing the National Historic Landmark City designation that he has called for a meeting with the Park Service and the state Department of Environmental Protection within a few weeks. No date has been set, but Mahaney said Park Service officials had agreed to tour Cape May and discuss its status.
"We simply cannot lose this designation. There is too much at stake here," Mahaney said. "It is what makes us a premier destination for tourists interested in cultural arts and history and adds property value to every property in the city."
At least a third of the value of a residential property - in a town where one-bedroom condos three blocks from the beach sell for more than $350,000 - can be attributed to the designation, he estimated.
While no one is trying to pass off the one-story Beach Theatre as Victorian, it is integral in telling the story of Cape May's development as a resort, said Steve Jackson, president of the Beach Theatre Foundation.
Frank Theaters obtained an initial demolition permit in 2007 from the Cape May Historic Preservation Committee. That permit has expired, according to the town, so the company, also known as Frank Investments, had to reapply to the zoning board. Plans call for building five apartments on the site and retaining shops there. The zoning board has held two public hearings on the matter and is expected to take a final vote Thursday on whether to permit the demolition.
Until two years ago, the Beach Theatre Foundation leased the movie house and had been showing art films and other productions to packed houses during the summer to help raise money to buy the property.
Jackson said the theater was historically significant because it was designed by noted architect William H. Lee just as movie houses were evolving from grand palaces into family-oriented centers. A state-of-the-art theater at the time, it had huge air conditioners; big, comfortable seats; and a TV lounge.
Lee was commissioned to design the theater for William C. Hunt, a colorful entrepreneur who had used $150 he made selling fruit on the street to open the 80-seat Nickelodeon in Camden in 1905. Eventually owning 21 movie theaters, he brought the first films with sound to Cape May County in 1929 and cornered the market on the tourist movie trade on the Jersey coast.
Harry Bellangy, president of the Greater Cape May Historical Society, said losing its landmark status could be "devastating" for Cape May.
"Right now there are protections in place for these buildings. Without them, Cape May could look like . . . Sea Isle or any other town," Bellangy said. "It would ruin what we have been trying to preserve for 40 years."