Developer renovating Capitol Hill’s Yale Theater

Steve Mason, whose work to date includes helping revive Automobile Alley and the Plaza District, is setting his sights next on Capitol Hill where he is starting to renovate the long-neglected Yale Theater.

Mason’s redevelopment of historic and older buildings began a decade ago with properties along the 1000 block of Broadway and along NW 9. He then bought up several properties in the Plaza District and started renovations that attracted restaurants and shops to NW 16.

“Capitol Hill has had a future for the past 20 years,” Mason said Thursday. “We’ve been waiting and wondering, ‘When is it Capitol Hill’s turn?’”

Various historical accounts indicate the history of the Yale dates back to when southside Capitol Hill was a separate city, predating its annexation to Oklahoma City in 1910 (other records indicate an opening during World War I). Architectural renderings show the venue started as the “Capitol Hill Theater,” a nickelodeon style theater with an attached open roof “air dome.”

The name was changed to Yale Theater in 1921, and it was expanded and given a new “Moderne Theater” facade and marquee in 1946. Seating at that time was expanded from 500 to 800.

The facade is in bad shape, the sign lost its Yale lettering years ago. The theater’s era as a first-run movie cinema ended by the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s it was showing Spanish-language films. In more recent years, the theater was used for professional wrestling matches.

Mason, who along with partner Aimee Ahpeatone is redeveloping the theater, bought the property last month for $233,000. Roof repairs are set to begin within two weeks, with air conditioning upgrades to follow. Explorations have started to look at how much original facade is intact under metal siding added during later years.

On Thursday, crews opened up the roof to start that work and tore into the fake veneer brick that was at some point used to cover up the original stucco facade.

Mason said is looking to bring back the 1946 facade and marquee sign. Once complete, he is preparing to reopen the theater as an event and wedding center for the Capitol Hill neighborhood and Hispanic community.

“There is nothing wrong with championship wrestling, but I think we can bring it to a higher use,” he said.

The Yale Theater redevelopment coincides with the opening this spring of a new Oklahoma City Community College branch in the former Katz drugstore and ongoing efforts by Fowler Auto Group to promote and grow festivities in Capitol Hill to help create the buzz and attraction that helped revive Midtown, Film Row and the Plaza District.

Mason said his interest in Capitol Hill is ongoing and also is inspired by city investment in the Core to Shore area between the district and downtown, the development of Wheeler at the old downtown air park south of the Oklahoma River, and the ongoing transformation of the historic Mount St. Mary’s campus.

“Capitol Hill is beautiful,” Mason said. “It’s near downtown, it has great people, great architecture and great history. The district needs improvement and love, but it is gorgeous.”

Donna Cervantes, director of Historic Capitol Hill, said she welcomes Mason’s involvement and sees it as being a potential catalyst for more investment.

“It means a lot to us to have people see the value in the area,” Cervantes said. “It has a domino effect. It will attract other developers who will catch the vision and see this as an area worth investment.”