Restaurant Chains Open in the Drag’s Old Varsity Theater

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Movies, music, books, and now food. The building at the corner of 24th St. and Guadalupe has served UT student needs for decades now, and after more than two years vacant, its latest configuration has opened this week.

The historic old Varsity Theater space is being renovated to house three businesses by fall: Noodles & Company, Qdoba Mexican Grill, and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

The first of those, the coffee shop, opened July 28 in the building that had been vacant since March 2009. The Varsity turned off its projectors in 1990; it was followed by Tower Records and then the shorter-lived Intellectual Property bookstore.

Although the interior may not have the artsy flair of the old Varsity after this $2.5 million renovation, the exterior will retain part of its funky vibe.

Carlos Lowry’s 32-year old cinema history mural on the south side of the building is being restored, with about 25 percent of the mural being repainted higher on the wall to make way for windows.

“We had to take it from a theater, which is built with no windows, to a restaurant, which traditionally has a lot of windows,” project architect Michael Antenora says.

The work, Antenora adds, is being done with the blessing of Lowry, who has provided his original drawings to help aid local artist Greg Keshishian as he restores and repaints the mural. This reincarnation of the mural will include a blank film strip on which a newer, classic movie—set to be chosen via voting on social media—will be added to join American classics like Citizen Kane and Little Women.

Fans of Federico Archuleta’s funky stencil work on the Guadalupe side need not worry if construction seems to have harmed or covered up his work; Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and crew have been touched up to coincide with the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf’s opening.

History buffs will be happy to hear that Antenora is seeking permission from the city of Austin to install a reconstructed version of the original neon Varsity Theater blade sign. Current regulations prohibit the addition of “new” blade signs to this part of the Drag, but Antenora hopes that the city will grant an exception to replace a sign that many consider part of the building’s original architecture.

“This corner was vibrant when I was a student at UT,” Antenora says. “I’m pleased we’re able to restore that fixture in a way that will be memorable for current UT students.”

The building is owned by Hugh Oates, whose family has held the building for more than 50 years, local media report. The new development has been spearheaded by Wes Colwell, managing director of Houston-based Meridian Asset Strategies.

Renderings courtesy Wes Colwell


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