Every evening, the pink and yellow neon lights of the Columbia Theatre marquee glow brightly in downtown Harlem.
Though the marquee is relatively new and reminds residents of the theater’s heyday, the rest of the historic building doesn’t match its facade.
Harlem officials hope to change that.
The mission, which coincides with the implementation of the city’s Urban Redevelopment Plan, is to return the theater to the condition it was in more than 50 years ago and make it a historical gem in the downtown area.
“We’ve had a bit of a renewed interest in downtown, more of a desire to make it better,” said Will Butler, the city’s Community Development coordinator. “It’s pretty neat. It’s a good opportunity. There’s a lot of potential in downtown Harlem. It’s really the only downtown in the county.”
The theater, owned and run by Bill and Nan Griffin, was the county’s first movie theater. It showed new movies from 1949 until the fall of 1962, when the popularity of television and competition from other theaters proved too much for the business.
After the theater closed, the building housed a variety of business and stood vacant for many years.
During those years, it was renovated to remove the theater seating and stage, flatten out the sloped floor, add a second floor even with the balcony seating and build several small rooms on the first floor where the stage was.
The projection room is one of the only areas that still resembles what it looked like when the theater was operational, with guillotine metal windows and markings on the walls made by projector
“It’s pretty original,” Butler said of the interior of the building, which is now in shambles.
The city purchased the building in 2005 through the Harlem Foundation and basic clean-up soon began. As funding dried up and the financial recession hit, renovations languished.
Through a $69,500 grant and city funds, the city replaced the neon marquee in 2009. Each evening, the sign lights up on a timer.
With residents’ and city officials’ renewed interest in the project, it is becoming part of the Urban Redevelopment Plan and has the potential to become a historic centerpiece in downtown Harlem.
“It’s going to be a project going forward,” Butler said. “It’s going to take time. It’s not going to be overnight.”
The city has already had a structural engineer examine the theater and had lead and asbestos testing done, which showed evidence of both.
Proceeds from a recent city-sponsored concert went toward the theater renovation in hopes of paying for a feasibility study.
The study would explore the renovation and structural needs as well as costs, funding and potential uses for the building.
“Once we get the feasibility study, we’ll look as what can be done here, what’s going to work,” Butler said. “That’ll give us a better idea.
‘‘After that, it’s going for grants, any kind of funding.”
At this point, it’s funding that will determine how fast the theater is renovated. As a designated historic building, there is much more grant potential for the theater’s renovation.
“It’s going to take a lot of money,” said Stacie Hart, Community Services director, who hopes to see the renovations complete by 2019. “I want to have the theater open for its 70th anniversary. I want it to be
The preliminary plan is to restore the theater to a performing arts center. City officials want to remove the added floor and rooms and rebuild the stage and
Butler said he hopes to be able to restore the projection room back to its original state as a sort of historical memorial.
Butler said the preliminary plans, drawn up in the late 2000s, also include a lobby with restrooms, a concessions stand and theater seating that can be folded away or removed for use as a rental facility for special events such as weddings and community celebrations.
“I think it’s important to design it in such a way that you can have a wide variety of uses,” City Manager Jason Rizner said.
The theater, Rizner hopes, will also become a focal point of downtown.
“Having a functioning facility like that in the middle of a downtown can really breathe new life there,” Rizner said. “I’ve seen it in other places. It’s really an important quality of life (addition).”