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So You'd Like to Restore or Landmark a Theatre


Contributed by James H. Rankin
Published on August 27, 2003

It is a noble goal to preserve or designate as a landmark an older theatre of beauty and value to your community, and in some cases, to the nation as a whole. It is, however, not an easy road to travel, and will require a great deal of persistence, assistance, and good fortune along the way, yet few enterprises will give as much satisfaction if you are determined. Many theatres across the United States and Canada have been restored to some degree and some of them have been officially designated local, state and/or national landmarks by the authorities involved. Such designation can sometimes bring in financial assistance for preserving the site, but first one must have a realistic idea of just how the theatre is going to sustain itself even if it does receive a landmark designation. In the USA, mere designation does not bring with it any financial assistance in itself; the designation is largely an honor, and, if it protects anything at all, it is only the exterior of a building against alteration, not the interior, which the owner is usually free to alter at will. Therefore, it is important to soberly review the purpose that the theatre will realistically serve and the paying audience for that purpose, any real merit it might have for landmark nomination, and the physical condition of the facility to determine a timetable of realistic cost estimates of repairs, law updates, additions/alterations necessary to complete its purpose, and the cost of daily repairs and operations, as well as costs of property taxes, utilities and operating staff.

Your path in this enterprise is therefore roughly in this order of need:

    1. Why do you want to restore or landmark a certain theatre? Is this realistic?
    2. What is the current use verses the Intended use, and is the Intended use realistic for the community it serves? Will there be enough patrons over time to support the new use? Is there enough nearby parking for all patrons (Americans are not in the habit of walking anywhere, and often expect covered walkways to the building's door!)
    3. Is the current owner in favor of this, or can you buy the property without limitations?
    4. Is the 'fabric' of the property solid, or will it require extensive renovations/repairs?
    5. Do you have sufficient local backing to assure cooperation and enthusiasm?
    6. Have you assembled enough experts, contractors, or volunteers to do the deed?


    1. Hire an architect experienced in theatres to begin planning.
    2. Appraisal of the structure and survey of the land for legal/insurance protection.
    3. Determine local building codes' support of your intended use. Will the public come?
    4. Gather sufficient funds on hand, as opposed to well-meaning "pledges."
    5. Establish a business organization in place to assure planning, finances, and compliance with laws such as all building permits required.
    6. Do a photographic Survey to show Original condition, Progress, and Completion, which helps in insurance and landmark claims, as well as a great morale booster for all. Group photos of all contractors, staff and volunteers is a very good idea for legal, insurance, and morale reasons and captioned copies of the photos should be posted where all can see them and feel themselves to be integral parts of a great endeavor. This is the beginning of your documented history, which will be costly to reconstruct later, if it can then be done at all.


    1. Survey all concerned as to readiness for planned steps and their starting dates. Do not rely solely on a General Contractor for compliance with blueprints and codes; it is good to have a "Clerk-of-the-Works" as the owner's representative on-site and intimately familiar with all specifications and pertinent laws and safety regulations.
    2. Anticipate problems and plan for accidents financially.
    3. Hire experts needed in Planning, Work-in-progress, and Operation. If there is to be movie projection or real stage use, you will need trained, professional workers (see the web site: www.IATSE.com (International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees) or their local chapter. The projectionists union has largely disappeared, but sites such as www.Film-Tech.com below, may be able to locate a professional in your area or willing to relocate there. Amateur operation of these areas is not wise.
    4. Set the Grand Reopening Date, and contract for performers, crews, house staff (make sure the date set is realistic both from the standpoint of completed renovations and public availability and acceptance (do not select a date too near a holiday or a local celebration or event.)
    5. Secure the property against vandals, 'squatters,' gawkers, and professional thieves (you would be surprised at what all they may plan to steal!) An internal surveillance system of hidden cameras on recorders is a wise investment before anyone arrives for construction work or daily work. A fire detection system is wise, if not also mandated; be sure coverage extends to unused areas such as attics, as well. Your fire and property insurance may be lower priced if you adopt such measures.

The Theatre Historical Society of America (www.HistoricTheatres.org) can sometimes find historic photos and other information for your project, and it can sometimes offer a Letter Of Recommendation as to historicity, and sometimes can send a representative to speak before local groups or authorities, at your invitation and expense. The Society regrets that it does not have the resources to aid any project financially. Please see their ARCHIVE link to determine what fees are involved in searching their vast records on your behalf. In addition to the above, it is wise for you to contact the groups listed below to determine how they may be of help:


    The Theatre Historical Society of America: www.HistoricTheatres.org (the original membership and reference organization concerning physical theatres in the USA, with an extensive Archive and Museum of the American Movie Palace in Elmhurst, Illinois, just west of Chicago. Have published their "Marquee" quarterly since 1969. The many titles in their BOOKSHOP link will take you to where you can obtain the books on theatre history, maintenance, and programming, and when you click on a title you will be taken to the premiere on-line source of books in the USA where you may also enter the search term -- Theater -- to locate hundreds of other titles that may be of use to you. There is really no substitute for such reading.)

    The National Trust For Historic Preservation: www.nationaltrust.org

    The History Division of the National Park Service: http://www.cr.nps.gov (This office is responsible for listingss for the National Register of Historic Places, and the designations for the National Historic Landmark programs.)

    The American Society of Theatre Consultants: www.theatreconsultants.org

    The League of Historic American Theatres: www.LHAT.org (a membership group concentrating on theatres built before 1935; they have lists of accredited contractors and consultants experienced in theatres.)

    The United States Institute For Theatre Technology: www.usitt.org (they would be able to advise on stage situations, rigging, lighting, etc.)

    Cinema Treasures web site: www.CinemaTreasures.org (Where your theatre may already be listed, shown in photo, and commented upon)

    Cinema Tour web site: www.CinemaTour.com (similar to the above, but with many novel features)

    Conrad Schmitt Studios: www.ConradSchmitt.com (the premier restorationists in the nation, who will advise on all aspects)

    Entertainment Services And Technology Association: www.esta.org (for when the building will not be used in a traditional theatrical way)

    Big Screen Biz (business) web site: www.bigscreenbiz.com (resource for modern day operators of movie houses (cinemas); Forums are especially good.)

    National Association of Theatre Owners: www.natoonline.org (the trade and lobbying group for exhibitors)

    Film-Tech web site: www.film-tech.com (technical source for projection room equipment, manuals, etc.)

    Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers: www.smpte.org (technical group that sets standards for projection and can advise on screen sizes, seat ratios, etc. in their STANDARDS link)

    International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees: www.iatse.com (trade group that can advise of local union technicians)

Some of the URLs (web site addresses) may require that one substitute UPPER CASE letters for lower case letters, or vice versa to operate each time, since the programming for them varies. It would be good to thoroughly search each web site before contacting the owner with questions, lest your questions are already answered on one of a site's many pages. Do not neglect to contact local sources (historical societies, historic files at local libraries, building inspection departments of local municipality for blueprints and permits history, state preservation officer, and local business groups or chambers of commerce, which may welcome your endeavor). If you can get the local politicians on your side, it may help greatly, especially if the current owner is reluctant.

On the Theatre Historical Society's web site's sidebar is the Link: BOOKSHOP, and there one will find more than one title that deals with restoration matters and if clicking on the link does not bring you to an offer of the book, one can go to any library and ask them to have it sent to you on Inter-Library loan. In addition, the Society once published a special issue of their MARQUEE magazine which dealt with that subject, Theatre Preservation: Vol. 15 #4, Fourth Qtr. 1983. See the BACK ISSUES link on their sidebar.

Feel free to post updates on your project in their "Guestbook" and mail progress photos to the Society. They will be a joy to their members and a record of how you worked to preserve our theatres heritage. They preserve such photos and records in their vast Archive in Elmhurst, IL.


Jim Rankin resides in the Milwaukee area and has been a member of the Theatre Historical Society of America since 1976.


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