Galveston: Owner threatens to demolish Martini Theatre

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by Laura Elder / The Daily News

khou.com

Posted on May 1, 2010 at 1:45 PM

GALVESTON — The majority owner of the vacant Martini Theatre downtown said he’s seeking bids to demolish the entire building as city officials plan to take him to court over a sagging marquee they say is unsafe.

City officials had sought demolition or repair of the marquee, not the entire 990-seat theater. Taking a wrecking ball to the building at the corner of 21st and Church streets would be a blow to island preservationists who for years have sought revitalization of the art deco-style theater built in 1937.

“Now that people want to play hardball and games with me, I think I have no choice,” Michael Martini said. “I’ve been put on the radar screen, and everybody wants to jack with me.”

Because the building is not a protected landmark under the city’s preservation ordinance, there’s little to stop Martini from tearing down the theater if he so chooses.

Martini estimates the cost of demolition at about $100,000. He can afford to pay for demolition, he said.

He said he doesn’t want to demolish the theater. But Martini, whose family at one time owned eight island movie theaters, said he won’t be harassed by the city or by business owners who have complained about the building’s condition.

Martini, who cares for his bedridden 94-year-old mother at his Fulshear home, said he doesn’t have time to deal with certified letters from the city, nor can he leave his mother alone and make court dates.

“My No. 1 priority is taking care of my mother,” he said.

Martini, along with Martini Theatre Enterprises, missed an April 19 deadline to submit an engineer’s letter to the city certifying the structural integrity of the marquee, city officials said.

Martini also missed a deadline Monday to obtain permits to demolish or repair the building’s marquee. Martini said he had spent some Sundays working to shore up the marquee. He does not believe the marquee to be a danger, he said.

Some business owners have complained to the city about the sagging marquee and general condition of the building, which they say has become an eyesore.

Martini, however, said he’s spent thousands of dollars maintaining the building — including painting and re-roofing it several years ago. Other buildings downtown are far worse, he said.

The Galveston Historical Foundation, charged with preserving architecturally significant buildings, long has listed the theater as threatened by neglect.

The foundation has sought permission from Martini to allow University of Texas-San Antonio architecture students to conduct an analysis of the building and make recommendations for feasible uses. Martini said he spoke with them but has not agreed to such an analysis.

Selling the building is complicated by ownership issues. By some accounts, there are seven owners; by others, there are 19, Martini said.

The family’s theater empire faded with the advent of TV. The Martini Theatre closed in 1975.

Martini also won’t sell it to just anyone. He’s seeking a developer with the stature of George Mitchell, who would restore the building and put it to good use, he said.

Martini had plans years ago of showing old films in the building, but restoration would take millions of dollars.

The building has sentimental value for Martini, who as a young man worked with his father, G. A. “Sonny” Martini.

He won’t be pressured to sell it, he said.

“They’re not going to permit me and fine me to make me give it away or sell it cheap,” Martini said. “I’ll tear it down before anybody is going to take it because I’ll play hardball with people.”

Martini said he’s due in municipal court later this month. But his court date was not immediately available.

This story was brought to you thanks to khou.com’s partnership with The Galveston County Daily News.

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