Grand Theatre/Alton, IL

The Telegraph (Alton, Illinios)

Wed. September 22, 2010

Panel to decide if old Grand Theatre is landmark

By Linda N. Weller, The Telegraph, Alton, Ill.

Sept. 22–ALTON — Members of the Alton Historical Commission have a month to decide whether the old, vacant Grand Theatre merits status as a city landmark.

Twenty people attended Tuesday night’s public hearing on the matter, with three speaking in favor and the owner of the property at 230 Market St. once again saying the building is not historically significant.

"We believe a restoration of the Grand Theatre can be the locomotive driving Downtown development," said Bill McKenzie of Alton, who formed a committee of citizens wanting to save the building.

"The wave of the future is tourism," McKenzie said. "Olin is on life support, the glass factory is not coming back and neither is Alton Box Board."

McKenzie submitted the application to the city, which contained a detailed history of the theater, built in 1920. He reviewed much of the history during his testimony and compared the building to renovation efforts in Edwardsville of the Wildey Theater building.

City ordinance allows 30 days for commissioners to make a decision, which can be appealed to the City Council. Commission Chairman Doug Bader said he does not know when the commission will convene for the vote.

At stake is that anyone wanting to renovate, add on to or demolish a city landmark must submit the plans to the city’s Building and Zoning Department. The commission would review the plans and must recommend that Alton issue a certificate of compliance before work can begin.

The landmark status, though, could be helpful in the owner or a developer obtaining tax credits and other assistance to help with renovation costs.

McKenzie said if renovated, the building could drive tourism by being a "niche venue," showing "old-time movie classics" and foreign and independent films; schools could hold programs, or perhaps it could house a dinner theater.

He also suggested owner Ed McPike of Alton could donate the property to a nonprofit organization or to the city so as to be eligible for tax credits to assist in renovation costs.

The Grand closed in 1977.

McPike, though, said the building he has owned for about 20 years is in poor condition and not worthy of landmark status.

"I’m in favor of historic buildings; I’m not trying to destroy an old building," McPike said, mentioning how he restored an old barn in his Hopp Hollow subdivision to serve as a neighborhood center.

McPike said he and his wife joined an organization and attended seminars on restoring old theaters, then determined the Grand was not historically significant.

"It was a budget-built theater for the 1920s, a box," McPike said. "The facade was removed and replaced in the late 1930s. There is just not much that stands out architecturally. It was built on a budget in 1920. There were movie palaces and movie houses. This was not built to recognize the arts. It was a movie house."

In August, McPike said he would not allow commissioners to tour the building but would provide photographs of its interior. Tuesday, he said he could not take photos because of the darkness and rubble from "haunted theater" events from the 1990s.

He did take two commissioners to peek inside the building but declined Tuesday to open the doors to the others, saying it is too dangerous.

"There is a hole in the roof, the plaster on the walls and roof have caved in; there is no wiring that works," McPike said, among other poor conditions. He said previously it would take $2 million to $5 million to renovate.

Commissioner Jim Siemer was one of those who looked through the door to see some of the interior.

"The condition is bad. The concrete on the bottom of the balcony is decomposed, the iron underneath is exposed," Siemer said. "It is in very bad shape."

Eric Shultis of Alton, vice president of the Alton Area Landmarks Association, read a statement from its board of directors, saying the building should be saved but not necessarily be renovated for use as a theater.

"It is a big empty box because of neglect by the owner," Shultis said, listing possible uses such as performing arts, housing or racquetball — as has been done elsewhere with old theater buildings.

"We do not want to lose the structure. Perhaps it is not as ornamental as the Fox Theatre (in St. Louis), but back in the day, people would dress up to go to the theater," he said. "Losing the marquee would be a terrible loss."

Richard Osborn of Alton spoke about the building’s Art Deco architectural features.

"It provides significant value of a study of a period," Osborn said, describing Art Deco and saying the building adds to the diversity of Downtown.

Other members of the commission are Kerry Miller, Ray Strebel, George Carter, Charlene Gill and Mary Anderson. Gill was absent.

Among those in attendance during the 50-minute hearing were Alton Mayor Tom Hoechst and Alderman Mick McCahill, 2nd Ward.


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