The Ottumwa Theatre Restoration Receives Design Award
Representatives from the Ottumwa Community and the historic preservation design team were on hand to receive a 2018 AIA Central States Design Excellence Award – Honor Award in Historic Preservation for the Ottumwa Theater Facade Restoration!
No restoration or preservation story is complete without the context of history and community, and the Ottumwa Theater is no exception. The original theater was built in 1941 after a fire destroyed the previous theater in its location on Main Street. Designed in the art deco style, the façade included a repetition of curved surfaces and vertical lines through the use of glazed pillow-shaped terracotta tiles accentuated by chrome accents, and a neon, backlit theater marquee.
– Jury Comments: “For this restoration of a major civic building, the jury especially cited the design focus on the middle section of the building, a magnificent part of the original design and the correct are of focus.”
In the late 1800s, the box office was removed and the rest of the first story was covered with a stark brick façade with metal paneling concealed the terracotta above, masking the building’s severely deteriorating condition. In the early 2000s an attempt was made to revitalize the theater, and eventually in 2006 the brick and metal paneling were removed. By 2015, the theatre had been closed for several years, no façade improvement work had been done, and this rich architectural gem sat vacant and derelict in the middle of downtown Ottumwa’s historic Main Street.
It was during that time, the City of Ottumwa began to turn its attention to revitalizing its downtown. They were looking a the needs of their community and for ways to improve life, business and economic development – leading the city to pass ordinances that spurred façade rehabilitation all along Main Street. The city also introduced an annual art festival called “Walk on Art Street” a few years prior which helped create excitement and interest in improving and restoring the buildings all along Main Street. As part of this festival, a project promotion poster was created to help visualize and remind the community of the importance of a fully restored Ottumwa Theater façade. The poster helped create such a buzz that the owner was able to sell prints to help fund the project
The facade restoration began in earnest based on studies of 1940s photos and historic architectural drawings of the building, resulting in facade restoration features that return of a stunning marquee and vertical sign to the theatre. The building’s storefront, including the box office, shop windows, and entry doors were restored or recreated to match the original. Restoring the extensive terracotta that comprises most of the façade was an emphasis of the project, as it had not only deteriorated extensively over the years but also been damaged by the installation and removal of the brick and metal panel façade from the late 1980s. Original materials were re-used wherever possible. What could not be saved was re-created and rebuilt with great care and attention to historic detail, to match seamlessly with what remained of the original facade.
Since the façade restoration, the Ottumwa Theatre has become a showpiece and signature point of pride for the community, whose Main Street efforts have steadily brought a new refreshed look to the entire downtown core. Completed in time for Ottumwa’s hosting of RAGBRAI* in 2016, the Theatre immediately became a draw for visitors, who regularly pose for snapshots in front of its impressive completely restored façade.
*The [Des Moines] Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa