Last updated 9:27AM ET
July 1, 2016
Local Features
Local Features
Locals Fight to Save Historic Art Deco Theater
(wkms) - Each year the non-profit historical preservation society, Landmarks Illinois Trust, picks ten aging buildings they consider "endangered." Recently announced on this years' list is the Massac Theater, an Art Deco style movie theater and performance space in Metropolis. A group of locals is trying to raise money and support to restore the building. But they face significant hurdles. The theater has no roof, and the city has condemned it. Angela Hatton has more.

Cruise down 5th Street in Metropolis Illinois, past the Dairy Queen and the newspaper offices, past old brick houses with big front porches. You arrive downtown. There's the post office, there's city hall, the bank, and mashed in between . . . a run-down sandy brick faced building, the Massac Theater.

"Course in its hey-day it was all that. It had central air and central heat when no other buildings had central air and central heat."

Lisa Gower is a member of Save the Massac. The theater was constructed in 1938. Its Art Deco design that was popular at the time borrows elements from cubism, futurism, and folk art. The space seated over seven hundred people, which Gower says was large for a small town. For Gower, the theater is a part of her family's history.

"This is my grandmother's theater, it is my mother's theater, it is my theater. I graduated in 1977 from high school. It closed in 1978. When we look at it, we think of our first date, our first kiss, our first movie experience. It's very much a part of our community."

But the building is also an eyesore. Many of its decorative tiles are missing. The marquee is a ragged home to scattered letters, and the roof has deteriorated, allowing weather to destroy most of the inside.

"You can see all the way to the back of the building, it's just a shell."

The city of Metropolis seized ownership of the building three years ago because it was a health and safety hazard. Padlocks on the doors prevent anyone from going inside.

Currently, the fate of the theater hangs in the balance. Save the Massac and the city of Metropolis recently partnered to pay for a restoration feasibility study. According to that report, a full restoration would cost approximately two million dollars. That estimate makes Metropolis Mayor Billy McDaniel pull up short.

"All cities now are facing the same dilemma. Y'know, we're fighting to keep our costs and things down, just to keep the jobs that we've got. I don't believe we can justify putting money into a situation like that it is."

McDaniel says the city has already put over 72-thousand dollars into the Massac Theater. He can see the building from his office window, and worries about how long it can remain in limbo.

"We can't condemn one person for neglect and then just let the building set now that it's in our possession forever."

Some Metropolis residents would prefer the building torn down and turned into a parking lot. Lisa Gower says older and middle-aged black residents remember the theater as a place they weren't allowed to visit.

"Finally when they were allowed to come to the theater, there was a separate bathroom, there was a separate balcony that they sat in."

Gower hopes a theater restoration would include a display that acknowledged that period in the Massac's history. Save the Massac has expressed interest in buying the building, but members must wait until they receive approval as a 501 C-3 non-profit organization. Gower says the theater's place on Landmarks Illinois' Endangered Historic Places list should help bring attention and donations to the project.

"There are people out that look for something to, uh, I know it sounds hard to believe in this economy, but there are people who look for things to support, and by making on that list that gets you in the public eye that reaches beyond our Massac County."

Landmarks Illinois Director Jim Peters says in the past sixteen years, 166 sites have made the Endangered List. Of those, over half remain unchanged, a quarter have been restored, and twenty percent have been torn down. Gower is hopeful benefactors will take note of their theater because the restoration project is less expensive than some others on the list. One theater in Chicago needs forty million for its restoration.

"If there's someone who has money to offer, they could be a big name on a little theater, whereas they're just a drop in the bucket for that big theater."

Save the Massac members and city officials plan to meet soon to discuss the results of the feasibility study. Gower says the Metropolis school district doesn't have an assembly space, and would like to use the theater for plays and ceremonies. The Chamber of Commerce likewise doesn't have a permanent location for their offices, and could use part of the Massac. But Gower says officials have told her before they can jump on board the project one thing has to be done. The theater needs a roof.
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