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By Jen Duplaga and Susan Fletcher
IUPUI Department of History
Lafayette is a city located approximately one hour northeast of Indianapolis. Lafayette is located adjacent to West Lafayette, which houses Purdue University. Nearly thirty-eight thousand Purdue students make their temporary homes in the two cities, and Lafayette and West Lafayette have a combined population of one-hundred-fifty thousand people. Lafayette was founded in 1825 and remains a thriving community. The downtown area was a vital part of the city until the 1980s when suburban malls siphoned away many of the businesses and customers. Individual citizens and private organizations began the revitalization process about fifteen years ago and today the downtown area is popular site for shops, restaurants, and offices. The Lafayette Theater is located at 600 Main Street, in the heart of the Riverfront District.
The theater was built in 1937 and opened in August 1938. Originally, the property was a church/theater, and was one of the first in Indiana to show moving pictures. In 1906 that building was known as the Family Theater and showed movies on the Viatscope machine until the theater was torn down in 1935. When the Lafayette Theater was built in 1937, the builders preserved the original back wall of the Family Theater, which remains to this date. The Lafayette Theater was a vital part of the downtown community, reflecting the popular art deco style of the 1930s, and seating 1,100 people. First-run movies were the main attraction and the theater continued to show pictures until 1990, when it closed. Multiplexes hastened the demise of this single-screen theater, the last of its kind in Lafayette.
The building fell into disrepair during the 1990s as it changed ownership numerous times. Various individuals and private organizations conceived of plans to renovate the theater, including some owners who envisioned a dinner theater, but each venture failed. On Christmas Eve of 2002 a joint venture of the New York LLC and the Wabash Valley Trust for Historic Preservation (WVT) saved the theater from developers who planned to raze the building and turn it into a parking lot. Currently, the two organizations share equal ownership of the theater and each group brings different levels of expertise and experience to the project. The WVT is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of historic buildings and education of the public on the importance of preservation in the Wabash Valley area. The New York LLC is a for-profit organization of nine individuals from the Lafayette community, who originally joined together in order to purchase real estate in the city such as the Madison and Ball Buildings.The experience that they gained renovating these properties convinced them of the necessity of historic preservation. Currently, the group is involved with the renovation of older buildings with a view to turn them into useful and viable businesses to better the entire city through aesthetic and economic development.
These organizations work in tandem to accomplish the renovation of the theater, and in so doing, to realize their individual missions. The New York LLC brings to the table the business experience and expertise necessary for creating a financially successful venture, while the WVT brings important connections to the larger preservation community and thus access to grants available only to non-profits. The members of both organizations have donated their services by using their professional skills to accomplish specific tasks, such as drawing up the architectural plans, donating materials, keeping the books, etc.
When the current owners purchased the building, it was in a state of serious disrepair. They found four feet of water in the basement. The many holes in the roof went unrepaired by previous owners and have caused the ceiling to give way in several locations, plaster damage to the walls, and other serious structural defects. The interior of the theater was outdated and potentially dangerous, including old wiring, plumbing, and inefficient heating and cooling system. Many of the windows were damaged or missing, the marquee was chipped away by passing delivery trucks driving too close to the sidewalk, the façade was crumbling, and many theater seats were damaged by a leaking roof.
An architect in the New York LLC donated the architectural plans to turn the building into a dinner/movie theater. The owners approached local restaurateurs Bill and Angela Brown who were looking to open a new restaurant in the downtown area. The Browns were excited by the venture and thus helped in the design phase, planning the kitchen. Both parties expect that the renovated theater will be a venue for a variety of attractions, including movies, comedians, local performers, and musical acts. Plans for the building include the addition of a bar in the lobby and the balcony level, a new stage, an industrial kitchen, and an ADA compliant restroom. The owners plan to restore the marquee and the façade, the original bathrooms including the tile flooring, the old projection room, and the service areas such as the basement and HVAC room. Plans also include tables and chairs on the main level, and the removal of one-twentieth of the balcony seating to make way for small café-style tables.
The owners have multiple sources of funding. The members of New York LLC have personally invested a large amount of money to the project, and they obtained a mortgage from Union Federal Bank. Other potential sources of money include funds from preservation organizations including the Main Street Façade Program, Historic Landmarks Foundation, and the Department of Natural Resources. The group has also obtained other loans and donations from diverse organizations, ranging from the Lafayette Junior Women’s Club to the Lafayette Urban Enterprises Association. The owners are also applying for Lilly funds and an Indiana Investment Cost Credit. Future plans include fundraising dinners and seat sponsorships.
The owners are not just interested in preservation for preservation’s sake; instead, they are interested in helping the community as a whole. For example, local youth in trouble with the law are able to do their community service hours working on the renovation. The owners hope that the restoration of the theater will result in the continued revitalization of the downtown area and will stimulate economic improvement in the community of Lafayette.
Major work on the theater itself began in the summer of 2003. During the winter of 2004 the owners are concentrating their efforts on the renovation of the interior and hope to begin restoring the exterior in the spring and summer months while the restaurateurs set up their business inside the building. The project is slated for completion in August 2004 with the opening of the restaurant.