GARDINER — Costumes spill out of old trunks on the second floor of Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center.
The space is cold and dark, with a tin ceiling hanging by a thread, crumbling plaster and floor boards discolored and worn smooth in places by 150 years of foot traffic.
The hall, built in 1864 during the Civil War, provided live entertainment and banquets until 1929. From 1929 to 1959 it was a movie theater.
There have been many attempts to restore the old building. In 1987, a group of community members formed Johnson Hall, Inc., a non-profit organization with the purpose of restoring and operating the theater.
That group raised $250,000 to renovate the first floor into a 110-seat performance space.
Since 2002, the group has raised $220,000 to repair the roof, replace windows, spruce up the first floor office and performance space and repoint the exterior brick.
The focus has now shifted to the second and third floors.
The Johnson Hall Renovation Partnership, made up of Johnson Hall. Inc., Gardiner Board of Trade, Gardiner Main Street and the city of Gardiner, have completed the “pre-development phase,” which included concept drawings, a business plan, and parking study, and are now ready to launch a capital campaign.
The $5.3 million renovation project includes the second floor, where a lobby used to be along with dressing rooms and bathrooms; a soaring theater space on the third floor; and a 16-foot-wide addition.
Before they can kick off their campaign they need one thing.
“What we need to make that work is a couple of lead donors to start who can contribute between $500,000 and $1 million . . . for people to believe in it and know that it’s happening,” said Judy Lloyd, the center’s executive director. “People who invest in the project would be eligible for historical tax credits. And there’s a whole lot of grants out there that we would be looking for. But the grants and tax credits are dependent on getting local support, individual and corporate donors behind it financially. They want to know local people are deeply committed.”
Lloyd said a restored 400-seat theater would include a conference center and lobbies overlooking the Johnson Hall Mini Park.
Between 1869 and 1929 the third-floor theater had live shows.
Benjamin Johnson, who owned a local hotel and tavern, had the Italianate brick structure built in 1864 to provide a place for large gatherings and entertainment.
‘It was a stormy night’
“It’s the oldest theater in Maine and was the biggest public space when it was built in 1864,” she said. “On Dec. 6, 1864, they were disappointed only 500 people attended the hall’s dedication grand ball, but it was a stormy night.”
When Johnson died, she said his widow transformed the space into a movie house. Talkies came to Gardiner on Dec. 16, 1929, she said.
“This is the concession stand,” Lloyd said pointing to a hole in the wall on the second floor. “There’s the men’s room, we still have the urinals, and that’s the women’s room. That was the ticket holder. It looks like somebody made it.”
When the theater became a movie house, the ceiling and walls were painted black to darken the room for screenings.
The old theater has a built-out stage with a “proscenium frame,” an opening at the front of the stage. She said a community theater group in the 1970s built a temporary stage of plywood that extends out from the base of the original stage.
All but a strip of original art deco carpet from the “moving pictures” era is left. Lloyd said she would like to save a piece to display.
Once the building is restored, she said it will become what is known as a “presenting house.”
“That’s what our vision is for this theater,” she said. “We wouldn’t produce our own shows like Monmouth Theater, but be a venue for traveling acts and musicians.”
The motivation behind this project is to stimulate the area’s economy, according to John Shaw, president of Johnson Hall Board of Directors.
He said restored theaters throughout the country have been a vital asset to downtown communities.
“For some of us, that’s our primary concern, for others it’s the arts and historic building,” Shaw said. “When we were looking at launching the capital campaign three years ago we had a couple of prospective donors that we thought were excellent candidates, but then the economy changed drastically, and I believe it had an affect on them.
“We have a broad range of donors now, but we don’t have any substantial five or six-figure donors. And that’s what we’re looking for. With any project like this you need a supporter to get the process going.”
Cindy Yachanin of Augusta, who also serves on the board, said the region has a state capital, but limited cultural venues.
“The arts are very important to me,” Yachanin said. “It’s such a beautiful building. I would love to see the upstairs renovated and reused. The theater’s acoustics are wonderful. But we need to find that one or two donors to kick that baby off. There’s a lot going on in the area right now, but this is something that will benefit the whole region, not just Gardiner.”
Mechele Cooper — 621-5663
The Harlow Gallery in partnership with Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center invite Maine artists to participate in a special four-day exhibition in September.
The exhibition is open to any fine art media, including fine crafts.
“Harlow for the Hall” is meant to raise awareness and support for the Johnson Hall Renovation Project. For more information visit johnsonhall.org.
The exhibition will take place at the Harlow Gallery at 160 Water St. in Hallowell from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1.
The Johnson Hall Board of Directors will host a reception from 5-8 p.m. on Sept. 30.
Artists can visit www.harlowgallery.org for complete entry details, including entry form. There is no submission fee for members of the Kennebec Valley Art Association or Johnson Hall. Non-members will pay a $10 entry fee to help offset costs of this exhibition. Each artist may submit up to the works of art for consideration.
The exhibit will be juried by members of the hall’s board of directors.
For more information contact Nancy Barron or Deb Fahy at 622-3813 or visit [email protected] or www.harlowgallery.org.
Judy Lloyd, executive director of Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center, can be reached at 582-7144. Johnson Hall’s webstie is johnsonhall.org.