News Column

Landmarks group eyes State Theatre's historic status

June 1, 2014

By Andrew Dowd, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.

June 01--Owners of the downtown State Theatre have not sought historic status for the 88-year-old building, but a city commission is indicating it may pursue the process of declaring it an Eau Claire city landmark.

The Landmarks Commission's agenda for its 4:30 p.m. Monday meeting includes an update on "future local landmark designations and timeframe for an informational meeting with the owners of 316 Eau Claire St. (State Theatre)."

"As far as I know this is very preliminary," said Councilman David Strobel, who serves on the Landmarks Commission.

Each year the commission seeks out buildings that might qualify for a local landmark designation and is starting its 2014 list with the vintage downtown theater that began its life in 1928 as a vaudeville theater.

The theatre's historic status has been on commissioner's minds for years, Strobel said, and 2014 is when they'd see if there is interest in making it an official landmark.

Talks have not yet begun between Landmarks Commission representatives and the arts group that owns the theater, the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council, but the latter has previously shown little interest in historic recognition.

Ben Richgruber, executive director of ECRAC and the State Theatre, said such a status can limit potential renovations of the aging building.

"We have not filed for landmark status, and have no intention of doing so," he wrote in an email.

The theater building is in a section of downtown called the Confluence Commercial Historic District, which was recognized in 2006 by the National Register of Historic Places. However, Richgruber said ECRAC did not seek an additional designation or recognition for the State Theatre building itself.

"Nothing has changed," he wrote.

Built in 1926 by Finkelstein and Reuben, a company that made almost 100 theaters in the Midwest, the State hosted vaudeville acts for several years, according to ECRAC's website. Then it was converted to a movie house, operating as such until 1982. The city donated the building to a new community arts group, ECRAC, in 1984 and the 1,098-seat theater has since hosted concerts, comedians, plays and musicals.

But the building has aged -- ECRAC recently got a $499,000 estimate for replacing its leaky roof -- and the group got an estimate several years ago that a $6 million project is needed to bring it up to modern building codes.

Tax credit programs available for rehabilitating historic buildings, especially theaters, have gotten better recently, Strobel said, and the State's current status in a nationally-recognized historic district could help them qualify for that financial incentive.

ECRAC has been a vocal supporter of the Confluence Project, desiring to move its operations and shows to the proposed $50 million performing arts center. The arts group would then try to sell the State Theatre.

The Landmarks Commission deemed another building related to the Confluence Project -- the former Kline's department store, 6 S. Barstow St. -- worthy of local landmark status in October.

However, owners Jerry and Lois Heymans, who opposed the designation, successfully appealed to the City Council, cancelling the landmark designation in December.

Landmarks status could've delayed demolition of the building by up to 18 months for a historical review.

After a March 15 auction sold off interior furnishings and pieces of the building, salvage operations began in mid-May.

Previous owners of the Kline's building had gotten it listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places, but had not sought local landmark status.

Since the attempt last year to designate 6 S. Barstow St. as a landmark after its owners had filed a demolition permit, Strobel said the Landmarks Commission wants to meet with owners before they choose to raze a building that holds historic value.

"They would like to be proactive and talk to the owners before it goes under the wrecking ball," he said.

Dowd can be reached at 715-833-9204, 800-236-7077 or

n The Eau Claire Landmarks Commission will meet at 4:30 p.m. Monday in the council chamber at City Hall, 203 S. Farwell St.





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Source: Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, WI)

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