New London's Capitol Theater is for sale again

Restoration work on the Capitol Theater on Bank Street in New London from Sept. 27, 2006.
Restoration work on the Capitol Theater on Bank Street in New London from Sept. 27, 2006.

Sometimes, it seems, the more things change in New London, the more they stay the same.

Take the Capitol Theater, for instance.

It's back on the market again.

If you blink your eyes, drive down Bank Street and look up to see the for sale sign on the theater's forlorn-looking façade, you might think it's 2005 again, or 1995, or 1985.

Of course, the difference is that this time the theater, which the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation once called one of New London's best landmarks, is no longer owned by the city.

City taxpayers can blame that on successive city councils. In 2006, city councilors, incredibly, sold the theater for $1, to a convicted con artist from New Jersey and his friend, a guy who ran a Jersey auto body shop with the slogan "where quality is never an accident."

To make matters worse, the council abated the taxes.

When the new buyers did nothing to the building they had promised, for years, the city reconfigured the agreement so that at least taxes would be due. The city could have demanded the building back, following the obvious breach of contract, but didn't.

Of course, the owners never paid any taxes.

The real estate boom came and went.

Then, during a tax auction in the summer of 2010, two young men bought the Capitol sight unseen, for $20,000.

They were in town to help out a friend and buy another building at the auction. But then the bidding started on the Capitol, and they figured, I suppose, how could you not buy this big old architectural treasure for practically a song.

They strolled down the street to take a look at the building after they signed the papers at the auction. Then they got back in their car and returned to New York.

Last month, after the building had sat empty for another 18 months, they put it up for sale, asking $200,000.

Susan Howard of U.S. Properties, a New London commercial real estate firm, has the listing and said she's had three showings, adding that some of the parties seemed interested.

She also has scheduled a showing for next week with someone from New York, who apparently saw the listing on one of the commercial real estate websites she uses.

She's also had some local interest from people who seem mostly curious to get inside for a peek at the old vaudeville house.

"We are getting a lot of calls," she said.

The city came to own the building in 1978, paying $55,000. At the time, the city intervened in part to save an architectural treasure but also to stop the X-rated movies that were being shown there.

Not much interest developed in the building for all the years the city owned and tried to market it. For a while, it was open to the weather and was home to thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of pigeons.

The city eventually did move to stabilize it with a new roof.

The eventual restoration and reopening of the Garde Arts Center on State Street also presented tough competition for any restoration efforts that were contemplated for the Capitol, since the conventional wisdom was that the city could support only one major performing arts center.

I was surprised, after poking around a bit this week, to see that the Capitol has its own Facebook page. There aren't a lot of friends, though.

I did try to contact a theater buff from California who said on Facebook there might be interest in buying and restoring the Capitol. But he didn't respond to my messages.

We can all hope there is some promising offer for the theater on the horizon and it ends up in the hands of someone who can invest the big money that would be needed to restore it.

The future of this prominent Bank Street landmark is quite literally out of the city's hands.

At least, given the fact that it is being sold in the age of the Internet, it won't likely show X-rated movies again.

Some things don't stay the same after all.

This is the opinion of David Collins


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