The inside of the Wlshire theater has been gutted out to create space for a new use. (photo by Brandon Wise)

WILSHIRE BLVD — Construction has begun toward the rehabilitation of a Great Depression-era movie theater that for decades stood as a cultural and architectural icon on one of the busiest streets in Santa Monica.

Crews commenced the restoration and renovation of the Nu Wilshire Theater at 1314-1316 Wilshire Blvd. earlier this month, beginning an approximately $5 million adaptive reuse project that will involve sprucing up the facade of the old movie house and creating commercial spaces inside, which could include everything from retail shops to restaurants and offices.

Work is expected to conclude by the beginning of September, said Max Netty, the owner of Soundview Investment Partners in Century City, which acquired the property in 2001.

Designed by the late architect John Montgomery Cooper in the art deco style, the building enjoyed a long run as a movie theater over the past seven decades, specializing in foreign and independent films in its later years before closing in late 2007.

In addition to a theater, the building also housed a jewelry shop and shoe repair store.

While Netty said he purchased the theater with the intent of rehabilitating through adaptive reuse, he faced some challenges last year when the Landmarks Commission voted to historically preserve the building with some extra strings attached, including requiring that the marquis — which is not original — and patterned terrazzo-style floor remain.

“I was disappointed that it would landmark the building at the time and I just thought that maybe some of the restrictions that they were putting on the project were not feasible,” Netty said. “But I feel the commission was open-minded and they were fair … hopefully it will turnout to be a beautiful building that will benefit everyone.”

The owner did file an appeal to the landmarks designation, subsequently withdrawing the challenge, according to the commission’s meeting minutes from July 2008.

Netty said that he is focusing on the facade of the building, which, according to the landmarks designation, should remain relatively the same aesthetically. The marquis, which replaced the original art deco one sometime after 1938, will serve as the sign for the new businesses.

There were approximately half a dozen theaters that opened from 1920-1940 and the Nu Wilshire is just one of two that remain in the city. The Aero Theater, which was designed by Donald Douglas, remains in operation on Montana Avenue nearly 70 years after it opened.

“This was a great example of art deco and the style is not prevalent in the city,” said Barbara Kaplan, the chairwoman of the Landmarks Commission.

Kaplan said the commission felt the preservation of the marquis and terrazzo floor were important, viewing them as key contributing elements that made the theater architecturally significant, remaining in case the owner decides to revert the building back to a movie house someday.

“You always hope for that,” she said. “It’s sad when the use of the theater disappeared but it’s not in (the commission’s) purview to control use.”

Though the property was purchased about eight years ago, Netty cited the long entitlement process and navigation through city permitting and landmarking as the reasons why the project took so long to begin.

“We’ve been working diligently with the city of Santa Monica and the Landmarks Commission to do what is best for the building and to refrain from doing anything that would take away from the integrity of the building and in fact enhancing the building to its utmost integrity.”

He added that the commission’s staff, including planner Roxanne Tanemori, has been helpful.

The renovated building was at one time rumored to bring in Anchor Blue and Lucky Dungarees as tenants, which Netty dispelled.

The type of tenants that will move in has yet to be determined, thought the owner said he is leaning toward retail.

“My vision is to have a jewel of a building on Wilshire Boulevard that we can all be proud of,” Netty said.

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