Renovations begin at historic Leeds theater

Published 10:16 am Wednesday, January 18, 2017

For the first time in three decades and only the second time in nearly a century, Leeds theater has gone dark.

The 91-year-old theater closed in November and will not open again to the public until April, when the board will debut the newly renovated facility.

Tracey Miller, president of the Winchester Council for the Arts, said the last time Leeds Center for the Arts was closed was in the early 1980s.

“In it’s more than 90 years of existence, Leeds has only been closed for renovations,” Miller said. “In the 80s it went through a complete renovation.”

That renovation 30 years ago was the last time the historic theater located on North Main Street saw significant upgrades.

Thanks to a $100,000 anonymous donation specifically ear-marked for renovations and $50,000 in matching dollars from the Clark County Community Foundation, the theater is getting the much-needed repairs, Miller said.

“We cannot thank the anonymous donor or the Clark County Community Foundation enough for their generosity and the faith they have in Leeds’ mission,” she said.

Leeds Theater, now known as Leeds Center for the Arts, was built in 1925 and served as a popular local movie theater until it closed in 1986.

After the closure, the Winchester Council for the Arts purchased the theater and made some renovations, but over the last 25 years, the building has fallen into disrepair. The Winchester Council for the Arts has been working to raise money to continue restoring the building to its former glory.

Last March, The Greater Clark Foundation and the City of Winchester paid to repair a roof leak that caused damage to various parts of the theater.

In 2015, CCCF donated $7,000 to repair the sump pump station, bathrooms, toilets, sinks and water fountains.

The Winchester Board of Commissioners agreed to cover the theater’s operation expenses during the closure.

“We knew when we went dark and didn’t have any programming, we would need support to may our operating costs,” Miller said. “We can’t thank the city enough. Without that help, this would not be possible.”

Miller said the community support has been priceless.

“When we came on as a board three years ago, it was kind of like jumping into the abyss,” she said. “We knew this place was important to the community not only in historical significance, but as a place where people could be engaged and inspired.

“From the forefront, the community has rallied behind Leeds and helped us achieve so much.”

With the new donation, Miller said the theater will be repaired from front to back.

Just more than a month into the renovations, Miller said a lot has already been accomplished.

Two new doors have been added to stage left, replacing doors that wouldn’t close because of water damage.

“With the repaired roof, all of the water leakage issues have been taken care of and now we can start repairing that damage,” Miller said.

Some of the most notable damage is to the plaster on the wall at stage left. Miller said crews have torn the plaster off and are working to repair it.

Winchester Fire-EMS helped the board remove the old curtain, which will be replaced with a little community help, Miller said.

“A new curtain alone would cost about $50,000 and that just doesn’t fit in our budget,” she said. “So we are going to buy the material at wholesale and have a community sewing day, or days or weeks to do the curtain ourselves. That will save us about $40,000.”

Demolition has started in the bathrooms, which will get new toilets, tile, plaster and paint. New hot water heaters will be installed as well.

“There are several other projects under way already,” Miller said. “Painters will arrive in the next four or five weeks and we’ll get new paint throughout. Some electrical issues in the lobby will be fixed and we’ll have a new chandelier installed. The theater will get new carpet throughout as well.”

Miller said the board has been intentional about preserving the historical elements of the theater, particularly the art deco character.

Two local Boy Scouts will renovate the concession stand in the front lobby and the sound booth as their Eagle Scout project, Miller said.

The renovations will be focused solely on the interior of the building to address deferred maintenance issues.

“The exterior absolutely needs some updates, but there is nothing glaring,” she said.

Miller said the renovations will make Leeds, which already holds a special place in the hearts of many in Clark County, a more pleasant place to be. She said getting the renovations out of the way will allow the board to focus on offering more programming, education and community outreach.

“When you have an updated facility, it’s obviously much more sought after as a venue especially compared to a place where the walls are crumbling and there may or may not be hot water,” she said.

The theater will debut the renovations April 15 for the first scheduled program at the theater in 2017, a concert by Ben Sollee.

Miller said the board will host a community open house at a later date.

In the meantime, the board is still hosting programming. In partnership with the Winchester Opera House, Leeds will present it’s third murder mystery dinner, “An Audition for A Murder,” at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 25.

Tickets for Leeds programming can be purchased at leedscenter.org.

Miller said the board is in the process of planning the 2017 theatrical season and hopes to begin incorporating a music season along with the regular programming.

Miller said Leeds has seen more than 18,000 guests for its productions and community events hosted at the theater over the past two years.

Despite the much-needed upgrades, Miller said Leeds’ character and place in the community remains.

“It’s not as much about the renovations, although they are much-needed,” she said. “It’s about the community support, the volunteers, the donations, the ticket purchases. Those are the most valuable components of Leeds’ power in the future.”

About Whitney Leggett

Whitney Leggett is managing editor of The Winchester Sun and Winchester Living magazine. To contact her, email whitney.leggett@winchestersun.com or call 859-759-0049.

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