Nearly 100 years ago, The Nile Theater was a “movie palace” but now is a beloved concert venue and coffee shop.
Now, its owners are asking Mesa City Council to give it a historic landmark designation to help preserve it.
Michelle Donovan, business owner of The Nile Theater and Coffee Shop, is petitioning the council to approve a zoning change that will allow the building to be put on the local registrar of historic places.
With all the changes and redevelopment in downtown Mesa, Donovan, who has leased the building since 2009, said it was important to “try to preserve one of its most historic buildings.”
At the same time, Donovan is ready to reap the benefits of the city’s efforts to revitalize its downtown corridor, which has been long in the making. That includes façade improvements to tear down colonnades the city installed in the late 1980s as a heat mitigation effort.
In 2018, the Nile was able to improve it storefront with city funding and saw an increase in sales. The improvements gave the coffee shop more “curb appeal,” Donovan said. Next, she wants to try install a marquee to pay homage to its original art deco design in the 1920s.
Following challenges of the running business during the COVID-19 pandemic, Donovan is ready to build on the success of the twin concert-and-coffee business.
The zoning change would subject any exterior improvements to follow city’s preservation design guidelines and stricter demolition procedures.
The council will vote Monday on the zoning change and historic designation of the 1920’s era building on the corners of Main Street and MacDonald. The request has already received the OK from the city’s historic preservation board and planning and zoning board. If the council concurs, the Nile would be the 23rd property in Mesa to receive that destination and the first along the downtown Main Street corridor.
99 years of Mesa history
The Nile Theater opened its doors to the public on Sept. 2, 1924, with the showing of the silent film The Sea Hawk.
Movie theaters in those days were built set to a theme and this one took inspiration from Egypt. The building cost about $150,000 dollars and was built by Jo E. Rickards and Harry Nace, the same owners builds as the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix but the Nile predated it by five years.
It was the first “air-cooled” building in the state.
“What they did was build a big box in the alley of the theater… And they would dump tons of ice into that box each day and a large fan would pull it into the build,” said, Vic Linoff, president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation. The cool air would blow out of vents installed in the ground underneath the seats, he said.
“That was the air-conditioning for the theater,” Linoff said.
The building operated as a theater for 27 years until it was shuttered in 1951. Over the years, it was occupied by various retailers until it reopened in 1994 as a rock nightclub.
In the following eight years, the venue became notorious for drug arrests, firearm violations and lewd musical acts. A study in 2003 done by the Mesa Police Department found the nightclub was a focal point for criminal activity in the downtown district.
In 2002, the Maricopa County Superior Court granted a permanent court order, restricting the way the Nile owners at the time could do business. At the end of that year, it closed.
From 2003 to 2009, the owners leased the building the Faith Harvest Church.
Donovan, the current tenant, had worked in the venue booking industry prior to setting her eyes on Mesa. From 2009 to 2015, she only managed the two concert venues at the backside of the building. But once the storefront coffee shop owners suddenly announced they would leave, she took the opportunity to re-open as a vegan-based coffee shop.
Coming out of the post-pandemic challenges, she said their calendar has been full and next year will bring the same. The Nile opened as an entertainment venue and continues to operate as one today, Donovan said.
Tax benefits to a historic landmark designation
To qualify for the city’s historic landmark designation it must meet the criteria from the State Historic Preservation Office. The building must be more than 50 years and have cultural significance to the city, among other requirements. Although, Donovan doesn’t know if the building owner will seek those tax credits here’s what could be up for grabs.
The designation would open the door to historic preservation grants and federal incentive tax and state property tax credits. Property owners would need to apply for the credits with state historic office.
The investment tax credit program from the federal government “permits owners and some lessees of historic buildings to take a 20% income tax credit on the cost of rehabilitating” if the property is certified and meets the Secretary of Interior’s standards.
Owners can also combine the state program that would tax improvements at 1% instead of the commercial rate over a 10-year period.
Linoff said the benefits are meant to help maintain and restore historic properties to its former glory. He hopes that The Nile’s step “rubs off on” other business and property owners along Mesa’s downtown to seek the same designation to preserve the city’s history.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: The Nile Theater seeks historic designation from Mesa City Council