Starting in the 1880s, Tampa began growing at a breakneck pace. A land that had barely been explored exploded once major cigar makers decided to transition their businesses from Cuba to Florida. As the population exploded, development boomed. The 1920s were quite literally called “Tampa’s Boom Times”, so we fast-forward to 1924, when F.J. Kennard & Son, Architects designed the Rialto Theatre. Kennard famously designed Hillsborough High School and Floridian Palace Hotel, both noted for their Gothic Revival style.
The Rialto Theatre was designed in a Mediterranean Revival-style that stands out against the other yellow brick buildings on N. Franklin. The theatre originally opened it’s doors to the public on November 24, 1924, with a showing of The O’Brien Girl, but wouldn’t become a regular spot for shows until approximately 1928. Struggling as the decade turned, the Rialto even closed down for a short while until it was recognized by a governmental committee for it’s positive economic impact on the developing N. Franklin block, and was then kept alive throughout the rest of the 30s by the Federal Theatre Project. The purpose of the FTP was to assuage the general population’s psyche via exposure to art and culture once the Great Depression ran through the nation.
Starting in 1930, the Rialto physically began the transformation from live theatre to movie house to keep up with the times. In step with style, the mounted lettering on the face of the theatre was lined with Art Deco neon lighting that accentuated the geometric inlays. Following the ending of the Federal Theatre Project in 1939, funding became increasingly difficult to secure, but the Tampa vaudeville unit and other performing troupes would hold performances to keep the space afloat. After 1945, however, they resorted to changing the name to “The Cinema”, hoping a rebranding would reinvigorate the space. Unfortunately, this did not happen and in 1949 the theatre was bought by the Holtsinger Motor Company, who already owned an adjacent property. They poured in the concrete flooring, gutting the building so it could be used as a car dealership and showroom. It exhibited mostly Ford cars for a couple decades, slowly falling into disrepair until it was bought again in 1974 as an armature repair and service shop. They operated until 2005, when the Rialto was closed up once more, utilized only as a warehouse for years as it waited for new hands.
In 2007, investors sought the Rialto’s strip for a private night club, but that fell through and the property ended up being leased by a law firm for storage purposes. Fast-forward to October 2013, when Hope Donnelly and George Carter committed to buying the property, beginning the seemingly unending process of modernizing the neglected. The sheer amount of renovation necessary to bring the Rialto up to date was daunting to say the least, but they soon set to work clearing the space. The first priority, and to make the space significantly more accessible, a street-facing door had to be installed. What better way to accent the gorgeous Italian glass tile than with a massive, royal blue set of heavy doors? Countless photographs have been taken of the entrance-way since it’s installation and the business has adopted the hashtag #behindthebluedoors which acknowledges the speakeasy vibe of the space.
One challenge with restoring a historic building is keeping details close to the original while making the space function for its new purposes. The main features of the space were left intact, from repairing the crumbling proscenium arch, repointing and restoring the yellow brick, to cleaning and maintaining the red, hollow brick that makes up most of the building other than the facade. The caving in roof was repaired and recovered with a mechanically fastened TPO surface and the interior plaster was repaired and painted fresh white, unveiling a clean slate.
The redevelopment of the Rialto came on the cusp of work done to restore Ulele Spring and open Water Work Park, and prior to other projects in the area such at The Hall on Franklin and Armature Works. Even the particular Mediterranean Revival style of masonry is hard to find nowadays, especially in commercial buildings. It reflects a period in time when architects would try to transport passer-bys to other countries and points in time. The area surrounding the theatre was mainly devoted to service-oriented businesses: bakeries, printing shops, gas stations, auto dealerships and repair shops. A streetcar ride could easily take you to the retail and theatre district, and in the early 1900s, North Franklin was the heart of downtown Tampa with parades that would sail through the street. It flourished for years, until the 1950s when the Federal Interstate Highway System began razing businesses and homes, essentially devastating the local economy. Nowadays, it is incredibly rare to find a building that so specifically expresses this major turning point in Tampa’s history. It took until 2010 for the National Register of Historic Places to recognize the importance of this area in regards to Tampa’s history, and in 2016 the new owners, with the assistance of the Historic Preservation office for the City of Tampa, to dedicate the Rialto Theatre as a local landmark.