The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
December 27, 2010 Monday
Main Edition/ METRO NEWS; Pg. 1B
Preservation wisdom spreads; With Fox’s guidance, funds, Georgia theaters keep historic character.
By Howard Pousner; Staff
The Fox Theatre has spent $30 million over three decades in a never-ending restoration of the 1929 Peachtree Street showplace, building up priceless expertise in the process. Sharing that knowledge, and even some of the funds the busy theater’s success has generated, was the thought behind the formation of the Fox Theatre Institute (FTI).
In July 2008, plans to help other historic theaters in Georgia were announced at a League of American Historic Theatres conference in Atlanta. Atlanta Landmarks Inc., the nonprofit that runs the Fox, set aside $500,000 for the outreach, which includes not only restoration but programming, fundraising and community development help.
Little has been heard of FTI in Atlanta since, but in Rome, Brunswick and Fitzgerald, where the Fox has advised and helped fund projects, the collaboration has been big news.
"The experience with the Fox Theatre Institute has been nothing short of phenomenal," said Heather Heath, executive director of Golden Isles Arts and Humanities Association, which operates the 1899 Ritz Theatre in downtown Brunswick. "It is not often in the arts world that an organization appears to say, ‘We want to help.’ And that’s exactly what happened with the Fox."
The assist came not a moment too soon. The 58 original windows that dominate the Ritz’s Art Deco facade had been in disrepair for years, causing window replacement firms to frequently circle by in hopes of scoring a big job.
But then a couple of the panes became detached and crashed to the ground. So what had been an issue of aesthetics the city of Brunswick had planned to address became one of public safety.
Fox Theatre director of restoration Molly Fortune did an assessment in March 2009, determining that the windows could be repaired, and began helping Ritz officials select local craftsmen who could do the work to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. FTI offered $30,000 to begin the project, which the city of Brunswick matched.
The rehab was a 24-step process that included removing each window from its casing, dismantling them into individual components to repair the joints, sanding, applying epoxy to reinforce rotten wood, restoring window weights and reinstalling the glass with new wood stops.
Extending the improvements, city leaders decided to paint the Ritz’s exterior, which was originally exposed red brick but had been painted white some 90 years ago, with most of the building repainted red in the ’80s. Trying to remove the paint from the soft-fired brick would ruin the material, determined Fortune, who instead matched new paint to the original brick’s color.
During the early stages of painting, Fortune’s father, a part-time resident of nearby St. Simons Island, called her from Hattie’s Books across the street from the Ritz, reporting that customers were questioning whether the deep red shade was right.
The Fox’s restoration director wasn’t ruffled — the coat in question was a primer. In fact, she was pleased at the feedback because it showed her that, as in Atlanta and the Fox, "people are really invested."
The Ritz improvement was FTI’s second project, after a 2008-09 renovation of the entrance vestibule that welcomes visitors to Rome’s 1929 DeSoto Theatre. There, plaster and paint had become damaged from a roof leak. Fortune recruited a local plasterer and did a paint analysis to return the entry area to its original muted colors, bringing in painters who had worked at the Fox.
FTI is now assisting the Grand Theatre in Fitzgerald, in South Georgia about 75 miles below Macon. The 1930 Art Deco theater acquired a 1926 Barton theater organ from an Illinois private residence that is being rebuilt at A.E. Schlueter Pipe Organ Co. in Lithonia.
The Fox is contributing $30,000, and the instrument is expected to be installed in time for an inaugural concert on March 26.
Meanwhile, Fortune’s seven full-time and one part-time staffers have been plenty busy back in Atlanta. In the past year, the Fox has replaced all the carpeting in the auditorium and Egyptian Ballroom, matching the original 1929 patterns, and improved ballroom lighting, added auditorium balcony hand rails and assisted the theater’s operations department on a major updating of its HVAC system.
Next up: restoring many of the auditorium’s 4,600 seats and signage, and reworking some dressing rooms backstage. Conservation of original furniture in the lobbies and lounges is ongoing. Fortune said her work with other theaters that can only dream of the Fox’s financial and personnel resources has been a "good gut check" for her and her staff.
"It helps us keep our priorities very focused," the restoration director said. "Because we realize that what we have is a gift, and we’re entrusted with that and we need to keep our eyes on the ball."