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ARTS & CULTURE

Inside the Schine: How the Auburn theater's prospective new owner will restore it

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The effort to restore the Auburn Schine Theater may have more momentum behind it now than ever before.

It was 20 years ago in January that the Cayuga County Arts Council purchased the dilapidated South Street building in order to resurrect the art deco movie palace that opened there in 1938. The council started by replacing the building's leaky roof later that year and its distinct green and terracotta doors in 2007. But for the better part of the last decade, the project has stagnated.

It was also in January, however, that crews finished removing the source of that stagnation: the Schine's asbestos and other hazardous materials. With people now able to enter the building safely, and a recent $1.2 million grant from the state, the project once again has the room and the resources to move forward. It is expected to cost $6 million and conclude by October 2019. 

Those estimates come from Bowers Development, of Syracuse, which has partnered with the arts council to restore the Schine — and plans to buy it.

The sale was facilitated by the city of Auburn. In June, the city allocated $800,000 from its Community Development Block Grant accounts to fund the removal of the Schine's hazardous materials. Office of Planning and Economic Development Director Jennifer Haines said Jan. 26 that the city allocated the money to attract a new private-sector owner who would move the project forward. Asked why the city wanted to do that, though, Haines declined further comment. Records suggest the council, a nonprofit, did not pay back a $13,434 loan from the city in the mid-2000s.

Per the city's wishes, the council initially planned to sell the Schine to Bowers. Later, the plan changed: The council would transfer ownership of the building to Schines Theater LLC, a company it would co-own with Bowers. But Feb. 2, board Chair Ed Onori said the council has learned it can't co-own an LLC with a private company without affecting its nonprofit status, leaving Bowers the sole owner of the LLC — and, if the sale happens, the Schine. Onori said the council would still advise Bowers on the restoration and retain a leadership role in the LLC, such as a seat on its board.

Regardless, any change in the Schine's ownership will require the approval of the state comptroller and the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, plus a written opinion from the state attorney general. The requirement exists because the office holds a preservation covenant on the building until July 2036 due to grants it has awarded the council.

Onori said the council and Bowers are preparing their request for the office to approve the transfer of ownership. In an email, a representative of the office said only that it has guided the council and Bowers on submitting the request, and that when the office approves such transfers, the preservation covenant is "usually" transferred to the new owner.

Meanwhile, council communications Chair Michelle Milewski said in January that it's "working with the state authorities to lift the covenants. Although progress is being made nothing is finalized yet." She later added that the council has "no reason to believe" that the state will not approve the transfer. If the office doesn't approve it, she continued, "we will deal with any issues that arise." One issue would be the fate of the Schine's funds: The city allocated the $800,000 on the condition of Bowers' involvement, and Schines Theater LLC is the named recipient of the $1.2 million state grant.

Bowers Development President Bryan Bowers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

However, The Citizen has obtained Bowers Development's plan to restore the Schine from the state historic preservation office through a Freedom of Information Law request. Consulting Bowers on the plan is Syracuse architect Crawford & Stearns, which has previously worked with the council on the project. The architect submitted the plan to the office for review in September.

In a Sept. 13 email to Crawford & Stearns architect Jonathan Carnes, also obtained through the FOIL request, Historic Site Restoration Coordinator Olivia Brazee responded to the plan: "We are very pleased to see a project that so appropriately adaptively reuses such a stellar example of an Art Deco movie palace. We anticipate that this will be a very successful project for Auburn."

In a Sept. 18 letter to Carnes, Brazee added, "It is SHPO’s opinion that the proposed undertaking will have No Adverse Effect on historic resources."

The 10-page plan is part two of a Historic Preservation Certification Application. It details the current status of every part of the Schine, stage to ceiling, as well as the work Bowers is proposing for it. The prefix "re-" appears throughout: In short, Bowers plans to restore what it can and recreate what it can't by referring to period photos and architect John Eberson's original drawings.

For instance, those who walk through the Schine's doors will see the historic paint scheme and finishes restored to the main lobby, which Crawford & Stearns called "the most intact space" in the building. The mezzanine lounge will be used as a bar and concession area, and the lower lounge, once filled with feet of water, will have its tile, molding and other features repaired or replicated.

The auditorium will be reopened to the lobby with the removal of the storage rooms and raised floor that were built under the balcony in 1980, the year the theater ceased to be the Auburn Music Hall and reopened as Charlie's Night Club. Gating access to the auditorium, atop a new leveled floor, will be automatic sliding glass doors.

The auditorium's historic ceiling and decorative features will return with new plaster-like finishes that mimic the originals. Decorative paint will be matched to salvaged samples, and surviving features like the faux balconies will be "carefully documented to allow for molding in either cast plaster or fiberglass," the plan says. The sound-absorbing auditorium wall system will also be "reconstructed and covered with period-appropriate fabric of similar characteristics and appearance." And the walls' signature shooting stars and other celestial imagery will return, Onori said.

The stage, where much of the building's water damage was concentrated, will be rebuilt with a new curved extension. Bowers' plan says the extension will cover the orchestra pit, its curvature following the pit's shape, but Onori said it has yet to be decided whether there will be a pit. The 15-foot stage extension and raised floor that were added in 1981 have been removed. 

Seating, meanwhile, will be different. The Schine's rows of 1,700 fixed seats were removed along with its hazardous materials. In order to make the auditorium able to host not just artistic events but weddings, conventions and more, the angled section of its floor will be remodeled into three tiered platforms. Pipe railings will be installed at their transitions, steps and ramps. On those tiers, Onori said, will be movable tables and chairs that can be set up like a banquet hall, rowed or removed from the floor altogether, depending on what's taking place at the theater.

Balcony seating could be the same tiered setup, fixed rows like before or a combination, Onori said. In case the rows are rebuilt, he added, one seat and several end caps were saved for reference.

Onori also said the capacity of the restored Schine has yet to be determined because it is subject to inspection by the city's Code Enforcement Office. But 1,200 is an "unofficial target," he said. Milewski added that the capacity may decrease from the theater's heyday because its new seats will have to be "accessible and accommodating for the entire public."

Auburn Schine Theater floor plan

This rendering shows the proposed floor plan for the Auburn Schine Theater, which is in the process of being rehabilitated by Bowers Development.  

While the new auditorium will be able to host movies, live music and other events artistic and non, it's unclear from Bowers' plan whether the restored Schine will be able to accommodate professional theater. In 2010, the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's then-producing artistic director, Ed Sayles, outlined several reasons the festival couldn't program at the building. Among them were its lack of space for a dock to load sets, its lack of a fly system to maneuver those sets, and its lack of space to house such a system without raising its ceiling.

Onori responded by saying the first priority for the council and Bowers is reopening the Schine so it can make money, which means "trying to see how we can accommodate people who want to use the space." The festival's current producing artistic director, Brett Smock, is not presently one of them: Smock told The Citizen last year that the venue is too big for the festival to program there.

Whatever graces the Schine's marquee in October 2019, the words could also look a little different than they did in 1938. Bowers plans to restore the structure's sign panels and metal trim, and "replace missing and/or heavily damaged components with new (ones) to match originals." Hanged letters will once again tout events on the section facing South Street, Onori said, but LED signs will be installed on the two sections facing the sidewalk. Bowers will also use Eberson's drawings to replicate and reinstall the vertical blade sign that was removed in 1970 "if funds allow."

For now, though, the Schine has been stripped to its brick and ironwork. Removing its hazardous materials meant removing the withered remains of the shooting stars on its auditorium walls and other defining characteristics of the art deco theater. But Milewski reassured those who saw the bare structure in January and felt worried about the fate of the historic building.

"The structure of the building is intact, and the original ironwork that held many of the details of the theater that made it so unique are still in place," she said.

And if the Schine does reopen after 20 years of anticipation in October 2019, it won't be exactly the same theater where people saw "Planet of the Apes" or "Star Wars" decades ago. Its rowed seats may be gone and the words on its marquee may be digital. But the state historic preservation office won't allow anything less than a faithful restoration, Milewski said.

"The theater has to have the same 'wow factor' or ambiance when you walk in that it did 80 years ago," she said.

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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Features editor for The Citizen.