MORGANTOWN — Listening to Mark Downs talk about Morgantown’s old Warner Theatre, you can almost picture the glow of its broad marquee once again lighting up south High Street.
“It’s Americana,” he said. “It’s a piece of history that shouldn’t be let go and forgotten.”
That’s why the ownership team of Downs and Rich Brant are taking a long look at resurrecting downtown’s sleeping giant.
The 18,500 square-foot theater first opened in 1931. Hollywood’s Warner Brothers studios put up $400,000 to build it as part of a nationwide chain.
“It’s one of, I believe, four remaining Warner theaters built by the Warner Brothers in the late 20s, early 30s across the country,” Downs said. “There’s one in Erie, Pennsylvania, that I traveled up to last spring and toured that is fully restored and operational as a live performance venue. That’s really driven our planning for the Warner.”
The theater, located at 147 High St., has been dark since September 2010. It spent its final days as a three-screen movie house unable to compete in the age of the sprawling multiplex.
Downs said the goal would be to return the venue to a single-bay theater for live performances, much like its Erie namesake.
According to the experts, it still has the chops, structurally speaking, to make a comeback.
“Dan Coffey is an architect from Chicago who led the resurrection of the Chicago theater district. If there’s a theater in Chicago, Dan Coffey likely restored it. He’s been down here twice. He’s also the architect of record for the restoration and addition for the Warner, in Erie,” Downs said. “In his determination, the theater is absolutely still structurally sound.”
This past fall, the West Virginia Land Stewardship Corporation conducted a environmental assessment of the old building using EPA Brownfields Assessment Grant dollars.
Downs said a group of local stakeholders recently began the reuse planning process for the theater.
Main Street Morgantown President AJ Hammond is among those keeping tabs on the project.
“It would just be huge for the downtown. With Hotel Morgan just renovated, adding another anchor with music, arts and entertainment to the hotel, it would revitalize that part of the downtown,” Hammond said. “It would be a tremendous win for us as an entire community and, really, as a region; to be more of a destination for folks to come and spend a weekend.”
In the meantime, there’s work to be done — a lot of work — expensive work.
“It’s suffered some over the years. There are superficial problems,” Downs said. “Fixing the roof is a big number, but to preserve a piece of history and invest in something that could be a real economic engine for Morgantown, it seems worth it to me.”