Georgia Theatre set to reopen this summerPosted: March 31, 2011
By Mitch Blomert
The Georgia Theatre is beginning to take life again.
After nearly two years of reconstruction to repair interior destruction from a fire, the historic music venue on the corner of Clayton and Lumpkin St. is closing in on completion—and many Athens residents are excited for its reopening.
“The Georgia Theatre is to Athens what Radio City is to New York,” said University of Georgia junior and Athens music enthusiast Wil Petty. “Without it, you lose a lot of the city’s essence.”
The theater has been closed and barricaded by chain-link fences since the fire completely destroyed the interior of the building on June 19, 2009, leaving an eyesore in Athens’ historic downtown district, as well as a cultural hole in the city’s now-famous music scene.
The building, which was erected in 1889, has remained in the same state for 21 months with little knowledge of what progress was being made inside. The only on-site information was one four-letter word left on marquee above the main entrance—“ouch.”
But the marquee has since changed to “Back in 2011,” and Georgia Theatre owner Wilmot Greene has set a target reopening date for June.
“We are getting really close,” Green said. “I would estimate being complete by mid June, although it may take another few weeks of managerial organization after the building is complete for us to actually reopen. We will probably have soft openings until August.”
Greene said the theater’s steel and concrete rebuilding is 95 percent complete, while mechanical systems are 75 percent complete.
The carpentry and finish work have just begun, but won’t be much work, since Green wants to restore the theater’s rustic look to match the buildings 122-year-old age.
“The building will remain fairly bare with a good bit of exposed surfaces and mechanics,” Greene said.
Once the construction is complete and the theater is ready for reopening, it will host a two-week “grand opening” period in early August, hosting a wide variety of artists—both local and out-of-town—from varying genres of music.
With it comes a triumphant return of a major catalyst in the Athens music scene, brought back to life by numerous donors.
The theater paired with the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, an Atlanta-based organization that collects tax-free donations to help restore historic landmarks across the state.
The group has helped fund restoration for several Civil War sites in Georgia, as well as important Civil Rights Act landmarks in Atlanta, former plantation homes and Native American territorial establishments.
The Trust collected just over $200,000 to rebuild the Georgia Theatre, which equates to about five percent of the total reconstruction cost.
“Although five percent may seem like a low number, the budget was so tight on this project that we could not have gotten to this point without that help,” Greene said. “The Athens-Clarke County government has not been able to do us any special favors—which would be preferential treatment—but they have been cooperative and as supportive as possible.”
The rest of the donations have come from various sources, including Athens residents, UGA students and musicians that used the Georgia Theatre as a starting place for their careers.
The largest single donation from an artist came from Grammy Award-nominated country group Zac Brown Band, which gave $75,000 to the theater that hosted them before their mainstream success.
“Students and residents have done some amazing things for us,” Greene said. “There have been countless benefit shows, percentage nights at local bars and restaurants and ‘in kind’ donations from printers, lawyers, smoothie makers, and more.”
The theater received more donations than expected, which helped cushion the rebuilding process—something that could have been axed completely.
Greene said that the Georgia Theatre’s lofty rebuilding cost of roughly $4.4 million dollars almost made the decision to keep the theater alive “hard to justify,” and that without such passionate community support, the building may have simply been torn down.
Instead, the theater is now in a better financial situation than it was prior to the fire.
“We have certainly felt loved by our community,” Greene said. We hope that people continue to support us by donating money and patronizing the venue once we are completed. We will certainly be in a precarious financial position for years—and decades—to come.”
All the more reason for residents and fans of Athens-based music to be excited for a reopening—especially Petty, who holds fond memories of the theater.
Petty first visited the theater on Sept. 23, 2003 to attend a performance by Atlanta-based metal band Sevendust. The show he attended eventually became the first live album released by the band.
“That will forever be my favorite personal music memory,” Petty said. “Without the theatre I would have never gotten to experience that.”
Petty said he will be a regular at the theater upon its reopening, and expects most of Athens’ music enthusiasts to do the same.
“I don’t want to say it would never be the same since it’s so cliché,” Petty said. “But the night it reopens, Athens will be turned up to 11.”
For the non-music enthusiast that still frequents the downtown area, the theater’s reopening is still a sigh of relief.
Brent Ball, a UGA senior, has never attended the theater, but has anticipated its reopening since it will alleviate the construction in the area.
In the months following the fire, the Lumpkin St. lanes in front of the theater were closed completely, forcing traffic to turn right at Clayton and return to Lumpkin via Washington St. one block to the north.
Lumpkin St. access past the theater has since reopened, but the fences containing the construction zone for the theater and an adjacent new parking deck has remained intact, eliminating surrounding parking spots and a portion of the left lane on Clayton St.
“I just want it to be done so that the area looks better,” Ball said. “Downtown Athens has a serene, classic look to it—especially at night—and all the construction takes away from it.”
Luckily for Ball, the process won’t take much longer—something Green thanks the entire city of Athens for.
“Everyone has been extremely emotionally supportive,” Greene said. “This has made our monumental challenges easier to face without pulling out too much hair, although I have personally gone grey since the fire.”