Friday, June 21, 2024

City gambles that undoing landmark label will save historic drive-in

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There was so much excitement about the new business opening in Granbury that First National Bank ran a celebratory ad in the local paper, at that time the Hood County News-Tablet.

“Congratulations to Mr. and Mrs. Fort Keith upon the opening of the Brazos Drive-In, for their faith in Hood County in making this large investment here and for giving citizens the best motion pictures the industry has to offer,” the ad said.

Billed as “Texas’ finest small-town drive-in theater,” the Brazos Drive-In at 1800 W. Pearl St. opened on June 5, 1952. Harry Truman was president, and “The Winning Team” — a Warner Bros. film starring future president Ronald Reagan alongside Doris Day — was about to be released to theaters.

As dusk fell, families and young men with dates parked Buick Roadmasters and Chevy trucks near the drive-in’s 50-foot screen. They adjusted the in-car speakers and headed to the snack bar before settling in to watch the family comedy “The First Time,” starring Robert Cummings and Barbara Hale as overwhelmed new parents.

Hopes of a kiss may have made some young men forget that they were missing the first sporting event ever to be televised nationally. As the fictional Joe and Betsey Bennet faced first-time parenthood on the big screen, Jersey Joe Walcott successfully defended his heavyweight boxing title against Ezzard Charles at Philadelphia Municipal Stadium.

That inaugural season at the Brazos Drive-In was followed by many more. Even though the number of drive-ins across the country greatly diminished as the decades passed, somehow the Brazos Drive-In kept going. It never ceased operation in its almost 70-year existence, even though Granbury native Fort Keith died just a few years after opening the outdoor theater.

Life may not have been carefree during those decades, but starry, popcorn-scented summer nights at the drive-in made it seem so, even in times of war and tragedy.

The Brazos Drive-In has had only a few owners and its current one, Jennifer Miller, has operated it for 36 years. She bought it in 1986 with her then-husband Stephen.

The couple later divorced, but together they restored the concession stand to its original 1950s-era appearance.

Over the years, as Granbury’s tourism industry grew, so did the Brazos Drive-In’s fame.

It was featured on ABC World News Tonight, the History Channel, and Metroplex news broadcasts. According to local historian Mary Saltarelli, USA Today included the theater in a piece titled “10 Great Places to Cuddle at the Drive-In,” writing, “It’s just like when it was built. It has a small-town feel with great cheeseburgers.”

Granbury and Hood County are significantly more populated now than when the drive-in was built and when the Millers took ownership more than three decades later. But Granbury, voted Best Historic Small Town in America for three consecutive years, still has that small-town feel, thanks in part to its nostalgic drive-in theater.

In 2003 the city bestowed temporary historic landmark status on the Brazos Drive-In. In April 2008, the City Council made it permanent at Jennifer Miller’s request.

Miller, who kept the drive-in after the divorce, has since come to regret having made the request because of hindrances that come with that label.

During a regular meeting of the City Council earlier this month, the council pondered something it had never been asked to consider: rescinding landmark status on a beloved local property.

For city officials, the decision was not without risk. There were Miller’s rights as a property owner to consider, but there was also the chance that removing restrictions that protect historic structures could ultimately lead to the outdoor movie theater’s demolition.

From Miller’s perspective, removing the historic characterization and the bronze plaque that she feels is meaningless was the best way to save one of the last drive-in theaters in Texas.

BURDEN OF HISTORY

Last November, Miller contacted the city to ask that the historic landmark label be removed from the drive-in.

She informed the city that she wants to retire and has been unable to sell the property because of the landmark distinction.

In January, the Historic Preservation Commission voted 5-1 to deny her request.

On Feb. 14, the Planning & Zoning Commission, in a 4-1 vote, also voted to deny the request.

The refusals by both commissions may have been because the appeal was unprecedented and the path for the city to rescind landmark status is not clearly spelled out.

The City Council, which makes final decisions, took up the matter at its meeting on March 1.

As she had with the commissions, Miller explained that she has had opportunities to sell the drive-in, but once potential buyers find out about the historic landmark, they back away. She said that another potential buyer has come forward but will not follow through with the purchase unless the city removes the designation.

Where landmark properties are concerned, structures must be preserved, and the city’s Historic Preservation Commission must approve any changes such as painting or remodeling.

“It’s basically another layer of the permitting process,” City Manager Chris Coffman told the council.

Miller said that, regardless of whether she sells the drive-in, this year will be her last operating it.

“So, what happens then — it just falls apart?” she asked the council. “Because I can’t afford to maintain it.”

According to Miller, the potential buyer is a young woman whose family owned an outdoor movie theater in Colorado for many years.

Coffman said that he spoke by phone to the potential buyer.

“She will not buy this property if that landmark is there,” he said. “She made that very clear to me.”

Coffman noted that the drive-in is not in the historic district and is not bound by the same federal regulations that apply to buildings on the square.

Council member Eddie Rodriguez noted that the city would have to “take it on good faith” that the new owner will continue to operate the drive-in and properly maintain it, but he also acknowledged that the city’s restrictions have been “hindering” Miller’s ability to sell her business.

Mayor Pro Tem Trish Reiner stated that the city would still have “an element of control through zoning” if the historic landmark was rescinded.

“Out motto is ‘where Texas history lives,’ but there’s probably a certain point where we need to realize that not everybody is going to be here forever,” she said.

The council voted 5-1 to grant Miller’s request, with Rodriguez making the motion and Steven Vale seconding it. The nay vote came from Mayor Jim Jarratt.

In her comments to the council, Miller stated that operating the drive-in had come with challenges, but, “I feel that as unique as it is, it has got to be the most fun business anyone could ever own. I am forever grateful to have been the steward of this historic property and business.”