Goshen News, Goshen, IN

Local News

May 7, 2012

Elkhart wins Indiana Landmark award

ELKHART — Indiana Landmarks, a private nonprofit organization that saves meaningful places throughout the state, has awarded its annual Cook Cup for Outstanding Restoration to the city of Elkhart for saving The Lerner. Mayor Dick Moore accepted the Cook Cup at the inaugural Rescue Party April 28.

Harry Lerner built the vaudeville and silent movie palace in 1924 to seat 2,000 people.

A statement issued by Landmarks describes the learner: “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.”

Landmarks president Marsh Davis said, “Downtown theaters once rivaled courthouses and churches as the most lavish buildings in the land, and too many have been demolished.”

Mayor Moore stressed 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 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.

“The Lerner is the key landmark downtown and its revival was a game changer in Elkhart,” said Landmarks vice chairman and Elkhart resident Tim Shelly. “The city bravely decided to restore it all at once, rather than in phases, and set restoration 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.”

According to Landmarks officials, 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, Inc., assisted by ARSEE Engineers and R.E. Dimond & Associates. Majority Builders was the general contractor.

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 said.  

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. “If there’s one thing that made Elkhart think better of itself, that was a turning point for us, it was the opening of The Lerner. Optimism grew from that point,” declared Mayor Moore.

To learn more, visit www.indianalandmarks.org or contact Indiana Landmarks, 317-639-4534 or 800-450-4534.

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