Exhausting dramas such as "Ben Hur" and "Gone With the Wind" played at the Garden Theater in its mainstream days, but none could match that of the theater's own finale, a death throe that played out interminably and paralyzed investment around it.
Throughout the 1990s, one building after another on the Federal Street and North Avenue corridors of the Central Northside went dark, leaving as the last beacon the Garden Theater's marquee advertising a porn movie. Residents half-joked that they hoped to live long enough to see redevelopment.
Now, 23 years after the first effort to declare the corridor blighted for redevelopment, the wheels are starting to turn.
On Thursday, Nakama, a chain of Japanese restaurants, completed a lease agreement to open a second Pittsburgh location in the former Masonic Hall beside the Garden Theater, said Craig Totino, a principal of Collaborative Ventures, one of the developers. The other is on the South Side.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will hold a ceremony to celebrate the first lease at 11 a.m. Monday at the site.
It was almost five years ago that the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority bought the theater for $1.1 million and six years ago that the Supreme Court made its long-awaited decision that exonerated the URA for trying to seize it.
"I would think that by next summer  people will be living in here," Mr. Totino said Thursday during a tour of the Masonic Hall, which has arched windows reminiscent of Moorish architecture overlooking Allegheny Commons Park from the third-floor ballroom. "That will be premier living space."
Between eight and 12 apartments are planned for the upper three floors.
Last week, workers from Franjo Construction Co. began stabilizing two small late-19th century buildings at 1113 and 1115 Federal. Across the street, Lawrenceville developer Bill Barron has been stabilizing a former hot dog shop for its redevelopment as a proposed taqueria.
Lease agreements for two other restaurants along North Avenue have been signed by owners of the Round Corner Cantina in Lawrenceville and the former Firehouse Lounge in the Strip, Mr. Totino said. There's interest from a yoga studio and photography studio for the upstairs of the theater, he said.
The restaurant owners could not be reached for comment.
Chris D'Addario, president of the Central Northside Neighborhood Council, said the "best-case scenario is that we see shovels in the ground by early summer" on redevelopment of the adjacent Masonic Hall, Garden Theater and former Apache Lounge.
Mr. Totino concurred. His company is working with Philadelphia-based Zukin Realty to redevelop about a dozen blighted buildings the URA spent more than $5 million amassing since 1994. The buildings are all in the block within Federal, North, Eloise and Reddour streets.
The facade and front half of the Garden Theater, the last nickelodeon-style specimen in the city and one of the last in the country, will be saved.
Parking for 25-30 cars will be carved out behind what remains of the theater. The developers are working on an agreement for additional parking for residents of the Masonic Hall in a 500-space parking garage on Federal.
Franjo's work on 1113 and 1115 Federal is to shore up basement beams and floor joists and install new roofs.
"Now that they're cleaned out and the dropped ceilings are removed, we can see big beautiful cast iron columns and tin ceiling panels," Mr. Totino said.
The first rehabbed retail property in the two corridors was a formerly blighted bar that had been vacant for at least two decades. Mr. Barron revealed a stunning building with iron doorway columns and arched side windows that is now a Crazy Mocha coffeehouse. Beside that, he redeveloped an empty building into the Deli on North.
Those two and his ongoing rehabilitation of the former Toula's Hot Dog Shop on Federal have received funds from the URA's streetface program, said Joanna Doven, spokesman for Mr. Ravenstahl.
The momentum began with completion of a new Carnegie Library branch late in 2009 and the rapid sale of 23 Federal Hill townhouses, with 19 more to follow.
"After all this time," Mr. D'Addario said, "this is so exciting."