AUGUSTA — For the first time in many years, visitors to the long-vacant but historic Colonial Theatre won’t have their attention captured by a hard-to-ignore ugly gaping hole occupying the middle of the floor just in front of the silenced dusty stage.

Workers replacing the floor of the theater are wrapping up their work, aiming to finish later this month. That will cover the big hole in the main floor of the theater that went all the way through to the basement.

The hole, likely caused by years of water leaking into the structure through a since-replaced leaky roof, was hard to miss. And hard to ignore, even for advocates who are working to raise funds to restore the former movie house to turn it back into a draw to help bring people to the city’s likewise tarnished but on-the-mend downtown.

“We’re excited — fixing that giant hole is huge,” said Michael Hall, a member of the theater’s board of directors, and executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, a group committed to revitalizing the downtown area. “We’re looking forward to people’s reactions when they can finally get in the theater and see the progress.”

Hall said advocates for saving and restoring the theater anticipate, once the floor work is complete later this month and a second egress to the building is opened up, and the Office of the State Fire Marshal inspects the structure, they will be able to bring small groups of people into the theater for tours, which should help with fundraising efforts because potential donors will be able to safely check out the theater, and more easily visualize it as a home for the performing arts and community events.

The leaky roof, which allowed water to infiltrate the building and thus helped to create the giant hole in the floor, was fixed in 2016 by G & E Roofing, leaving the floor, restoration advocates said, as the only remaining structural element in need of major repair. Though the brick walls of the building need repair, the building has a stout steel structure supporting it all.

“We feel this is a major milestone, all the structural issues for the building are now taken care of,” said Tobias Parkhurst, president of the theater’s board of directors. “This is the first time you can say that in 20-plus years. There’s a new roof on there. And you can’t fall through the hole in the floor anymore. That’s a critical piece of the (fundraising) campaign. People can go in there and visualize a community resource Augusta hasn’t had in many years.

“It was impossible to go in there and not look at the hole in the floor. Now that we’re doing away with the gigantic black eye on the building, there’s a chance for all the intact old theater features to be seen, to stand on their own.”

The work on the floor, done by Winthrop-based contractor J.F. Scott Construction, was primarily funded by a $100,000 donation from Kennebec Savings Bank.

That $100,000 paid for the structural replacement of the floor, but the project ended up costing more like $175,000, Parkhurst said. That’s because officials decided to, before fixing the floor, to remove asbestos and coal ash that had accumulated in the basement of the building, both because it would have needed to have been done eventually and to speed the repairs to the floor.

The additional work was paid for by other donations to the theater and $30,000 in city money Augusta city councilors voted to turn over to the theater to help keep the project moving.

Parkhurst said other improvements were also made to the areas of the building around the floor, such as removing the old furnace, since there were already workers, outfitted in gear to work amongst potential environmental hazards in the basement, so it made sense to have them do that work now, rather than have them come back to do it.

The theater opened in 1913, closed in 1969, and has sat vacant, used only for storage, ever since. Numerous local residents recall seeing movies there over the decades it was in operation.

It showed now-classic movies starring icons such as Bette Davis, Roy Rogers, Charlton Heston and The Three Stooges. Ticket prices were 10 to 75 cents.

Maine writer and film producer Holman Day made a number of films in the Augusta area and premiered them at the Colonial. Actress Dorothy Lamour made an appearance there during World War II, for a war bond drive.

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.

A late 1920s view of the Colonial Theatre on Water Street in downtown Augusta. Contributed photo

Gerry Warren, supervisor of the project for J.F. Scott, said workers on the job found a bunch of old movie tickets he thought were from the 1940s while replacing the floor. Other finds in the theater have included programs from the 1940s and an old empty gum drops box.

Warren, of Hartland, said he plans to come check out the Colonial Theatre after its restoration is complete. He said he enjoys working on old buildings and the challenge of figuring out how their details were put together and helping to restore them.

He said they had hoped to save the theater’s old floor, made of curved hardwood planks, but most of the floor was too rotten to reuse.

The floor replacement, which started at the end of April, is expected to be complete in mid-June.

The job included the replacement of timbers supporting the floor, putting in all new floor joists and new decking. The new structural elements are tied into existing old brick columns in the basement with metal brackets, leaving the floor ready for the next phase of restoration to the rest of the theater.

Theater advocates hope to raise $8.5 million to rehabilitate the theater. Parkhurst said so far $1.1 million has been raised. Advocates anticipate the project will also receive historic preservation tax credits worth around $2 million, as well.

The city of Augusta has committed to contribute another $270,000 to the restoration project, in addition to the $30,000 for the floor project, though the city won’t pay those funds until the project is substantially complete.

Donations may be made through the Colonial Theatre’s website.

Two outdoor concerts to raise funds for the theater are planned on the downtown waterfront this summer, on Front Street alongside the Kennebec River. The Mallett Brothers Band is scheduled to play July 6, and Dustbowl Revival is scheduled to play July 26.

Plans to restore the theater include a larger stage, about 800 seats, the installation of box seating in the balcony, a new ceiling, and a new orchestra pit. One of the biggest additions would be a planned 13,000 square-foot new building that would be attached to the northern side of the Colonial, which would help meet modern accessibility requirements and provide space for bathrooms and other modern amenities.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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