Cynthia Hamblin, Harlem Theater steering committee, (from left) Ann Blalock, president of the Harlem Foundation and Mayor Scott Dean, look over the old Harlem Theater that the city plans to purchase for a community arts center.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Harlem officials are giving the former Columbia Theatre building a second chance in hopes it will once again take center stage in the city's downtown area.
"Theaters are historically the center of a town," said Ann Blalock, the chairwoman of the city's Historic Preservation Commission and head of the Harlem Economic Development and Industry Foundation.
And the Columbia Theatre was Harlem's center in its heyday.
Harlem officials purchased the historic building for $75,209.25 Tuesday with plans to restore it to its former glory in the form of the Harlem Cultural Education Center.
The theater, owned and run by Bill Griffin, opened its doors to movie-goers in 1949. The theater showed newly released movies until the mid-1960s, when the popularity of television and competition from new theaters elsewhere in the Augusta area proved too much for the business.
An old photo shows the Harlem Theatre as it looked in the 1950s.
Since the theater closed, the building has housed several business, including a Georgia Natural Gas office, an antique store and a consignment shop, Mayor Scott Dean said, adding the building has been vacant for the past several years.
"It has lots of potential," Dean said of the downtrodden building, which is now littered with remnants from former occupants and renovations.
The only room on the third floor - the projection room - is one of the few areas remaining that has been virtually untouched since its use years ago. Projection notes dated 1953 still mar the walls around the small windows through which projectionists focused the moving image onto the two-story big screen.
The screen, like the seats, was torn out to build a second floor many years ago.
All city officials are interested in is the building structure, not what remains inside.
"The glory of it is that nothing has to be preserved," Blalock said, referring to the contents inside. "The building structure is good and it has got a flat floor. So we can do anything we want to with it."
Dean said detailed plans for the theater are still in the works, but it will include a removable stage and seat risers on the bottom floor for dramatic productions such as plays, dinner theaters, murder mysteries and concerts. The same floor, when cleared, will be used as a meeting area or to hold events such as art or flower shows, bazaars, arts and craft shows or any other community event, Blalock said.
The theater as it looks today. The city of Harlem is planning to purchase the old theater building to turn it into a community arts center.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
The second floor will be converted into rooms for art and drama classes, among others, Dean said.
"First we've got to throw out all the empty boxes and then see what we have got," Blalock said, adding that once cleaned, the foundation will hold an attic sale to raise funds for the $750,000 worth of renovations that are needed.
The Harlem Foundation, a non-profit group, will lease the property to open up more opportunities for grant and other construction and program funding. The foundation also is accepting donations for the renovations and will entertain naming the center after a donor.
The goal is to provide art and drama camps and classes for the Harlem area for youth and seniors, Blalock said.
"The projection room would be wonderful for an art studio. The light is just great," Blalock said. "I want to really reach the people who cannot drive to Augusta to do this, cannot afford this or can't do this because their parents work."
Dean presented the idea to the Greater Augusta Arts Council Tuesday in hopes that planning for 2006 will include expanding some of its art programs to the Harlem center.
In the meantime, Harlem officials say they are glad to see the building preserved to benefit the community.
"My greatest fear is that somebody would buy it and tear it down to enlarge that parking lot on the corner," Blalock said. "We felt like it is the key to downtown development."
Anyone interested in donating to the renovation effort can mail donations to The Harlem Foundation, P.O. Box 99, Harlem GA 30814.
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