Thursday, December 19, 2013
AUGUSTA — A City Council tour Thursday of the old Colonial Theater stirred fond memories and hopes for the arts in the future at the historic, long-vacant Water Street structure, but safety concerns continue to take center stage.
COLONIAL TOUR: Augusta City Council members listen to a performance by Jonathan Johnston during a walk through of the Colonial Theater on Thursday in Augusta. Volunteers have been attempting to restore the historic structure on Water Street that councilors assessed during the tour.
Staff photo by Andy Molloy
The nonprofit group Colonial Theater Inc., which owns the building, envisions restoring the it and turning it into a multi-use facility that would house live theater, conventions, University of Maine at Augusta events, guest lectures and other events. The renovations would cost between $2.5 million and $4.8 million.
But councilors are concerned that passing pedestrians could be hit by falling bricks, and that the structure could be unsound and at risk of collapsing onto neighboring property.
“That brought back a lot of memories for a few of us, but our immediate concern is still the safety of that building,” Mayor Roger Katz said following the tour of the dilapidated 1913 theater. “You’re doing a lot of work here. Have a lot of energy. But it is somewhat disappointing you’re not further along with the structural aspect. Our message, collectively, is we’ve really got to see some quick progress on these safety issues.”
David Barnard, president of the group, said scaffolding has been put in place to protect pedestrians from any bricks that might fall from the front of the building. He said no bricks have fallen, but that some are loose.
He said a architectural historian must document the building before major work takes place, or the theater’s chances of being included in the National Register of Historic Places could be jeopardized. Barnard said that will hopefully happen soon, so the most serious safety issues identified in a structural engineer’s report — loose bricks in the front wall and parapet of the structure — can be addressed this summer’s construction season.
That could cost up to $25,000, and the group currently has about $3,100, according to Dan Emery, treasurer for Colonial Theater Inc. The group hopes to obtain federal nonprofit group status, which could provide access to grant funds, and he said Wal-Mart has promised a grant to the theater project, of an undetermined amount, once the group has that nonprofit status.
An architectural historian with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission has toured the theater, and said commission staff believe the property is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
The tour of the theater showed supporters have made strides cleaning out pigeon droppings and other debris from the riverside building. But a gaping hole remains in the wooden floor, water has leaked into the building in multiple locations, a small tree appears to be growing out of the north wall, and the seats were removed after it closed as a movie theater in 1969.
That didn’t stop local musician Jonathan Johnston from taking the stage with his acoustic guitar to perform the song “Spark” for councilors, many of whom munched popcorn provided by a machine set up in the corner of the lobby by theater advocates.
Many of the theater’s features remain under the dust, including elaborate woodwork hidden, and apparently protected by, more modern materials installed over it.
“It’s very nice, and the acoustics are good,” said Councilor Edward Coffin, an engineer. “But I’m concerned with the structure. That is the real concern of everybody, including the guy next door.”
Keith Edwards — 621-5647