In downtown Fort Lauderdale, squeezed between a courthouse and parking garage in the shadows of towering skyscrapers, stands a little white church. This church does what others cannot: stand against the test of time and the encroachment of new development.
The 1926 Great Miami Hurricane, brought death and destruction to many parts of South Florida. The cyclone leveled homes, businesses, places of worship, and lives.
The First United Methodist Church came down onto its foundations – its pieces ripped and taken away with the flooding current. It did not stand again until 1946.
The Methodist church was rebuilt to its former glory, only to be abandoned in the 1970s. This once holy place had fallen under the ownership of the Broward County. Soon its belly found itself littered with cardboard boxes containing case files and evidence from the courthouse next door. Instead of being filled with people, hopes, and prayers, the church became a storage facility.
The church-turned-depot remained like that until 1986.
That year, the first African-American to direct a play on Broadway, Vinnette Justine Carroll, was given the building by the Broward County Commission. Her rent was a grand total of $1 a year, in exchange for bringing a professional theater scene to the area.
For the first time in years, the church opened its brown wooden doors to a new clan of worshipers and became the Vinnette Carroll Theater.
By the 1990s, Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival President Gregory von Hausche, a friend of Carroll’s, began using the playhouse space for his films.
According to Hausche, the partnership was not “the best marriage for continuity.” Carroll had the space for herself for endless rehearsals and performances, while Hausche could only properly use the space for a few weeks a year.
When Carroll died in 2002, Hausche became the sole lessee of the little white church, which he later renamed as Cinema Paradiso.
That year, Hausche won the Cultural Facilities Grant and remodeled the space. The theater, that had a horseshoe-shaped seating arrangement that left moviegoers turning their necks to be able to view the film, now had proper cinema seating.
In October 2005, Hurricane Wilma brought death and destruction once again onto South Florida. Cinema Paradiso found itself roofless and with its stained-glass windows destroyed.
However, the building, still owned by the county, was restored by FEMA, said Hausche, who then rebranded the theater as Savor Cinema in 2016.
“I love it,” said Sally Dieguez, a film festival member. “The audience here is very serious about the films.”
According to employee Ray Cruz, the cinema focuses on movies not found in mainstream theaters, instead shining a light on independent local and foreign films, documentaries, and anime.
These underground movies caused Claudio Helman to volunteer his time at Savor Cinema a few times a week along with Michelle Filippi. She later became the executive director of the place.
“With movies from all over the world, you get to see the culture without actually traveling,” said Filippi. “It is one of the best things.”
Although the little white church has endured a hundred years of internal and cosmetic changes, it still has remained a place of worship to God, justice, and the arts. Even with the storm of growing modernization in Fort Lauderdale, the little church of many faces continues on.
On Sundays the South Coast Church, an Evangelical group, uses the church, squeezed between a courthouse and parking garage on 6th street, for its original purpose when first established: a place filled for people, hopes, and prayers.