Before it closed in 1991, the Center Theatre in downtown Monroe was a place for creating memories.
Now, 75 years after its grand opening in February 1940, a group wants to give the old theater a chance to breathe new life – and new memories – into downtown Monroe.
Monroe resident David Nelms and partner Nathan Hopper co-founded Center Theatre Development to renovate the old theater into a venue that can host concerts, movies, plays, ballets and other special events. Eventually, they’d like to add a rooftop café, a coffee bar, retail space and other features, Nelms said.
“We want this to be a world-class facility that would attract entertainment from afar,” Nelms said.
But, he added with a laugh, “I don’t think we’ll fit the Rolling Stones in the place.”
The original theater seated 846 people, he said. With modern seating and a larger stage, he expects the renovated facility will seat 600-650. He said the renovations would take three to five years to complete, with cost estimates ranging from $5 million to $11 million.
“We want to restore all the historic features that are remaining, but the previous owner completely gutted the interior,” he said. “All we have is a facade and a marquee.”
They also have two of the original carbon arc projectors from the theater, and they have plans to renovate them in order to show old movies – and perhaps even silent films.
The building is owned by the city of Monroe, which purchased it in 2013 for $225,000, according to online tax records.
Nelms said he and Hopper have entered in a long-term lease agreement with the city that allows them to make improvements to the city-owned structure. He said they will use the Charlotte firm Gantt Huberman Architects to draw up renovation plans.
The building’s potential first piqued his interest when he was exploring different possibilities for performance venues as the chairman of the Union Symphony Orchestra.
There have been other unsuccessful attempts to renovate the theater, but Nelms and his partner are undaunted by that history.
Nelms is an experienced pipe-organ builder and restorer, and those skills have gotten him involved in six historic theater renovation projects – including the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, he said.
His experience, coupled with the support he’s seen in the community and the wisdom of an advisory team representing “a cross section from different disciplines,” gives him confidence that this time the Center Theatre’s renovation will succeed.
“Something like this would be an economic – as well as a cultural – engine” for Union County, he said.
Funding for the project would come from grants and private donations.
“We have studied demographics,” he said. “We know Union County can support a project such as this.”
He emphasized that they are “not going for tax dollars.”
Center Theatre Development held a 75th birthday party for the theater at nearby Hilton Vineyard on Feb. 6 to help get the word out and start raising money. Nelms said about 200 people attended, and there was a steady stream of people from the winery to the Center Theatre for tours.
A kickoff campaign featuring several musicians will be launched April 11 in conjunction with the local art walk, he said.
Meanwhile, they’ve acquired a theater organ – a Robert Morton pipe organ built in 1927 for the Uptown Theatre in Kansas City, Mo. The donated organ, which needs repairs, will be one of four theater organs in North Carolina when it is installed in the renovated Center Theatre, Nelms said.
Patricia Poland is a reference librarian and a history buff whose father worked as a relief manager for the theater when she was growing up. She said she’s glad to know the landmark will be saved.
“These small town theaters meant a lot to a town,” Poland said. “It’s been sad seeing it sit there all these years.”
Nearby business-owners also are pleased about the plans, as well as the increased traffic on nights and weekends that the renovated theater would likely bring.
“I see it as bringing out more culture and more opportunity for culture in Monroe,” said Matthew Sganga, owner of the Stone Table restaurant, which is across the street from the theater.
“I think not only is it good for us selfishly, it’s good for Monroe in general,” Sganga said “It can’t come soon enough.”