West Theater renovation adds second theater property

Duluth Reader publisher and West Theater owner Robert Boone has purchased 321 N. Central Ave., next to his West Theater renovation project. The building, constructed in 1913, is the former Alhambra Theater and most recently housed Interior Tomato, a hydroponic gardening store.

An alternative weekly newspaper publisher currently renovating a West Duluth movie theater has purchased a second historic but mostly forgotten theater adjacent to his current project.

Duluth Reader publisher Robert Boone, operating as Paladin Properties LLC, purchased 321 N. Central Ave. from Paul and Shelly Persons for $200,000 on July 18, according to St. Louis County property records. The building is the former Alhambra Theater and was most recently occupied by Interior Tomato, a hydroponic gardening supply store.

Boone said the West Theater renovation project at 317-319 N. Central Ave. is nearing completion and he purchased the adjacent property for future expansion.

“I’d like to succeed in getting a hole punched between the two buildings but the (West) theater is expensive and taking a long time and quite a distraction so the long-term goal is to expand the theater in that direction,” said Boone.

The Alhambra Theater opened on Central Avenue in 1913, screening motion picture shows and staging vaudeville acts. The building’s use as a theater ended in 1928. (Photo from the University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Northeast Minnesota Historical Center Collection).

The Alhambra Theater opened to motion picture screenings and vaudeville performances on Central Avenue in 1913. According to the Duluth history website, Zenith City Press, the theater operated until 1926, closed for a year, reopened as the State Theater then closed again in 1928.

The building has housed numerous businesses and been significantly altered over the years, so much so that Boone said he was unaware of its history as a theater when he bought the property. He said the old Alhambra could serve as an additional lobby or sales area for the renovated West Theater.

Paladin Properties purchased the West Theater in 2016. The historic building, constructed in 1937, has been under renovation for nearly a year, though the bulk of the work didn’t begin until March.

Boone said along with typical new theater fixtures, larger bathrooms have been added and a rear entrance was closed to direct people to a new front box office. Installation of a replica 1937 movie marquee has run into complications and slowed the project.

“There are so few historic buildings in West Duluth,” said Boone. “So I’m trying to put in a recreation of the box office as they had at the time — and the marquee — even though it’s more expensive to do it that way.”

Remodeling work continued inside the West Theater this week. (Photo by Chris Williams)

Boone said recent theater renovations like the NorShor on Superior Street and the State in Ely have acquired neighboring properties for concession, food and guest service space. He said buying the Alhambra was part of a long-term plan but then it suddenly went up for sale.

“Through kind of a miraculous maneuvering, I was able to buy it. I did not know what I was buying at the time of the sale,” he said. “I had heard of the Alhambra but it was long enough ago … I didn’t connect the dots. I just knew it’s a building next door, it was for sale and I needed more space.”

Interior Tomato occupied the Alhambra building for three years. The garden supply store relocated to 2201-1/2 W. First St. in Lincoln Park in July.

The Interior Tomato has relocated to 2201-1/2 W. First St. in Lincoln Park.

Interior Tomato owner Andrew Ovind said the move has been good for his business. He said the 2,800-square-feet provided by the old Alhambra building was unnecessary. The new location offers 800-square-feet and is more centrally located in the city.

“We were just filling up space we didn’t need,” he said. “I’m real happy that we moved. We’ve got the right amount of space now and we didn’t lose any customers either.”

Ovind said the new West Theater should help continue the Central Avenue business district revitalization. “He’s spending a lot of money there,” he said. “Who knows, it could be really good for the neighborhood.”

Boone said he hopes to open the West Theater in October. Much of the opening date hinges on new marquee installation.

“This has been a kind of complicated time for me but it’s going to be beautiful,” he said. “It’ll be a big addition to the community. … If you go nationwide there’s a lot of studies that say in downtown areas movie theaters are the anchors to a sense of community.”

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