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Beach Theatre in preservation spotlight

A developer's plan to tear down the Cape May landmark has drawn fire.

CAPE MAY - Preservationists in this Jersey Shore town, where Victoriana has long reigned as the architectural sensibility, are mounting a surprising fight to save a 1950s-era movie theater.

Beach Theatre - built in a Neocolonial Revival style that merged a flashy red neon marquee with Early American lanterns and wainscoting - is as much a part of the colorful fabric of this resort as the 600 Victorian houses that line its narrow streets, according to those looking to save the structure.

"People love this theater. It's been here for years and it's a big part of this town, both for the people who live here and for visitors," said Jerry Gaffney, a member of the board of directors of the Beach Theatre Foundation Inc., a nonprofit group that has collected about 1,300 signatures on a petition seeking to preserve and restore the theater.

The group's vision for the property, which is just across the street from the Atlantic Ocean, is to create an art-house style theater that would show varied genres of films - including animated, indie and foreign - on its four screens. The dozen or so retail stores and eateries that surround the theater, which was built in 1950, also would be upgraded.

But Frank Investments, a Florida-based entertainment and real estate development company, earlier this year obtained permits to demolish the 860-seat theater and adjacent stores to build an upscale condominium and shopping complex.

Gaffney said preservationists might be able to stave off the development - at least for a year - if the Cape May City Council approved a $100,000 payment to Frank Investments.

The payment would give the foundation control of the theater for a year; in that time, the foundation would try to come up with $12 million to buy the property or find an investor who would agree not to tear down the structure.

A public hearing and City Council vote are scheduled for Sept. 4 at 1 p.m.

Bruce C. Frank, president of Frank Investments, has said that if his company moves forward with the project, it will be "posh, in the Ritz-Carlton style," providing something that "is missing in Cape May."

"People want luxury. They want high end," Frank told the New York Times earlier this month.

Since the 1970s, the town, which in its entirety is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has followed strict architectural-preservation codes within its downtown district. Home and business owners are required to adhere to historically accurate paint colors, exterior trims, doors and fences.

What has evolved is an enclave of Victorian architecture known nationwide for its numerous bed-and-breakfast inns.

There are signs, however, that Frank may be right about an appetite for the high life.

When a group of investors spent $22 million five years ago to remake the closed Congress Hall into an upscale establishment charging as much as $950 a night for a room, longtime Cape May residents said it wouldn't fly.

But now Versace-clad New Yorkers and Philadelphians sporting Hermes luggage arrive by the luxury SUV-load for stays booked months in advance. The hotel's 106 rooms and suites have consistently been booked solid during prime vacation times since the facility reopened in 2002.

"I think since they redid Congress Hall, you really can feel a change in the air when you walk around the [Washington Street pedestrian] mall," said Terry Wilkins, 48, of North Cape May, whose family has been in the area since the 1860s.

"People are much more urbane, better dressed than they used to be," Wilkins said. "But I think, in a way, it's eroding the small-town feel that Cape May always had. I don't think a lot of people like the word upscale when they hear it used in relation to Cape May."

Some people simply like Cape May the way it is. A few years ago, officials proposed a parking garage to alleviate congestion, but it didn't get far.

"We don't need a parking garage," said Fred Jones, 77, who has lived in the area his entire life. "Imagine what that would look like here. Talk about ruining the character of the place."

Those fighting for Cape May's lone movie house also talk about the town's unique character.

"It's a David and Goliath situation when it comes to the idea of preservation vs. condos," said Lelah Eppenbach, executive director of the Beach Theatre Foundation. "But it's a defining moment for the town, and I think that people are in favor of saving the theater. There's a lot of potential there, and I think people realize you can upgrade the space without completely demolishing the theater and building condos."