Elkhart's Lerner Theater wins Cook Cup
The City of Elkhart won the Cook Cup for Outstanding Restoration for restoration of The Lerner, described as "the heart of the city." (See more photos of The Lerner on Flickr.)|
Downtown theaters once rivaled courthouses and churches as the most lavish buildings in the land. How many have been demolished? A staggering number. Indiana Landmarks celebrates one that remains—The Lerner, saved by the City of Elkhart, winner of this year’s Cook Cup for Outstanding Restoration. Mayor Dick Moore accepted the Cook Cup at our Rescue Party on April 28 in Indianapolis.
Harry Lerner built the vaudeville and silent movie palace in 1924 to seat 2000 people. Outside, it projects an elegant classical sensibility, with a formal white terra cotta façade. The color was all inside, where the eye feasted on an elaborate scheme of painted and stenciled surfaces and gilded ornamental plaster.
Mayor Moore stresses that three mayoral administrations and countless civic leaders, donors and volunteers contributed to The Lerner’s revival. The city bought the declining Main Street theater in 1990, after it had been vacant for three years. By then, people knew the place as the ELCO, a tired and threadbare ghost of the original.
A series of plans over the next two decades culminated in the $18 million dollar restoration of the National Register-listed theater and construction of an addition. Reclaiming the original name, the city reopened The Lerner in May 2011.
Before restoration, the theater was a dark, uninviting place that required increasing city subsidy. The exterior terra cotta was falling off. The decorative interior was obscured and damaged. It had antiquated heating and cooling, stage, lighting, and sound systems.
Architect Dan Cripe and interior designer J. J. Osterloo of Cripe Design collaborated on the design with Jim Kienle, a preservation architect with Moody Nolan, assisted by ARSEE Engineers and R.E. Dimond & Associates; Majority Builders was the general contractor. The Elkhart Preservation Commission reviewed and approved the plans.
Jack Cittadine, an Elkhart attorney, acted as project manager without compensation. “The theater is the heart of our city. If you let the heart die, a city can decline too far, and you can’t get it back,” he reasons.
The restoration re-anchored the failing terra cotta and reproduced missing features. “We created flat terra cotta-like panels in a modern material made of glass fiber reinforced concrete. About 50 pieces were irreparably damaged. Even I can’t tell which is original and which is a reproduction,” Cittadine notes.
A replica of the original marquee replaced the 1940s version. Inside, research uncovered a piece of the original red and gold wall covering which was reproduced to reclaim the 1920s look. Artisans repaired deteriorated plaster, using molds to reproduce missing elements. Fresh paint, stenciling and gilding recapture the early appearance, while new seats, carpeting and stage curtains come close to the originals, all of which were removed in a 1950s remodeling.
To make the place a competitive host for contemporary productions, the architects designed an enlarged orchestra pit, improved rigging, loading docks, and theatrical lighting, sound, and HVAC systems. The addition is the business engine that will sustain the landmark. Designed as a visual companion to its historic neighbor, it includes space for receptions, dinners and events, as well as mechanical areas, administrative offices, and an expansion of the theater lobby.
Not so long ago, Elkhart repeatedly showed up in the national media as a symbol of recession-driven decline. The city responded with bold, hopeful actions, led by The Lerner restoration.
“The Lerner is the key landmark downtown and its restoration was a game changer in Elkhart. The city bravely decided to restore it all at once, rather than in phases, and to set high standards—People see the quality immediately. They see that ‘old stuff’ can be cool. It gives us a great base from which to build preservation awareness and support,” noted Indiana Landmarks Vice Chairman and Elkhart resident Tim Shelly.
Bravo, City of Elkhart!
Contractors & suppliers for The Lerner restoration
Moody Nolan, Inc. &
James T. Kienle Associates
Preservation Design Architects
R.E. Dimond & Associates, Inc.
ARSEE Engineers, Fritz Herget
Ralph Gerdes Consultants, LLC
Schuler Shook, Michael Burgoyne
Yerges Acoustics, Jim Yerges
Blundall & Associates, Martyn Blundall
Construction Cost Consultant
EverGreene Painting Studios, Inc.
Majority Builders, Inc., Giuseppe Tinervia
Wightman Petrie, Inc., Chris Chockley
Bear Acoustics, Inc.
D&M Glass Corporation
Essi Acoustical Products Co.
Evergreene Architectural Arts
Fox Valley Contractors
Gala Systems, Inc.
Helgeson Steel, Inc.
Kallimani & Sons Plastering, Inc.
Lamar Construction, Inc.
Masonry Contractors, Inc.
Midwest Accessibility Products, LLC
Midwest Tile & Interiors, Inc.
Moss Building Products
Rose & Walker Supply
Schindler Elevator Corporation
Zeigler’s Window Coverings