Des Moines officials say repairs are needed at historic theater

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — For decades, crowds have gathered to see the latest Hollywood films at the Ingersoll Theater, a landmark on the west side of Des Moines, and later to catch professional and amateur performances during his years of dinner theater.

But for the past eight years, the brick structure with its original – albeit chipped – art deco marquee has stood vacant.

The historic building at 3711 Ingersoll Ave. is now at a crossroads. A potential buyer has emerged who wants to restore the theater as a performance space. Yet when Des Moines permitting and development staff recently toured the 83-year-old building at the invitation of the potential buyer, they found several holes in the roof and water damage caused inside. by rain and snow. Staff will now request a formal inspection to determine if the building remains structurally sound.

“The roof of the café-théâtre is in very poor condition. You can see daylight through,” said Cody Christensen, the city’s permitting and development administrator. “It’s run down – it needs some work.”

At first glance, the structure, with its 1930s steel frame and concrete masonry walls, remains solid. Pending inspection, Christensen said he does not appear to be a danger to the public

The building can likely sit as is for about a year before becoming a threat to neighboring properties or passers-by, he told the Des Moines Register. At this point, it could be declared a public nuisance, which, if repair work is not completed as planned, could result in its demolition.

“The Ingersoll Dinner Theater is at this point where something needs to be done or more drastic things could happen,” said City Council member Josh Mandelbaum, who represents the neighborhood that includes the Ingersoll Avenue corridor.

Since 2009, Lee Family Properties has owned the commercial strip which includes the Ingersoll and adjacent but separate buildings which house the Greenwood Lounge, Manhattan Deli and Lovan Salon + Spa. The owners have historically been unwilling to sell or repair the property, although they were found in contempt of court for failing to address code violations filed by Des Moines.

The Des Moines Register attempted to contact Lee Family Properties, but a phone number listed for the company rang unanswered.

Built in 1939 by Des Moines businessman and theater operator AH Blank, the single-screen Ingersoll Theater is a rare local example of a Depression-era theater. It was one of the first in central Iowa built specifically for movies with sound rather than silent movies.

It was transformed into a café-théâtre in 1978 and for 26 years has hosted plays and business meetings.

The building later housed several restaurants and concert halls, none of which survived for long. It has been empty since 2014.

In 2015, the Des Moines Rehabbers Club, a group of preservation advocates, named the Ingersoll one of the city’s most endangered buildings. The list is intended to draw attention to neglected buildings of historic value.

“I think you could pretty well argue that the Ingersoll Theater has architectural significance and played an important role in the development of Ingersoll Avenue as a commercial district,” said Steve Wilke-Shapiro, one of the founders. of the club and owner of Architecture Suite.

For more than a decade, Ingersoll Avenue between Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and 42nd Street has been the target of more than $100 million in commercial and residential investment. A year-long streetscape project began in the spring of 2020 and includes a total roadway reconstruction, new storm sewers, buried utilities, widened sidewalks, improved bus stops, new pedestrian crossings, raised cycle paths and landscaping.

In recent years, several new businesses have opened near the Ingersoll Theater, including The Bartender’s Handshake bar and boutique, vintage and modern clothing store Preservation, new age boutique Enchanted Mystical Boutique, Loyal Sons Barber Shop and herbal store. Interior Renovation Jungle.

“They’re all relatively new and the type of businesses our community wants to see more of and want to support,” Mandelbaum said. “And having that kind of gap to the next block is one of those things that if we can fix that, it’s just going to make that area more attractive and help existing businesses as well.”

He added that there are “very few properties” on Ingersoll Avenue “that are in poor condition like (the theater)”.

Saving the Ingersoll has long been a concern of city staff, but its private ownership means there are limits to the inspection process unless a formal complaint is filed or the building can be legally entered. .

In 2016, Lee Family Properties was found in contempt of court for failing to process citations for violating the outdoor zoning code. The city wanted the owners to open a parking lot, modify some curbs and sidewalks, and add streetscape similar to other parts of Ingersoll.

The case applied to the theater and the vacant former AG Food & Gas Mart at 3625 Ingersoll Ave.

A judge eventually allowed the city of Des Moines to complete the work, charging Lee Family Properties nearly $142,000.

Now that city staff have peeked inside the Ingersoll Theater, Des Moines will request a formal interior inspection, said SuAnn Donovan, assistant director of neighborhood services. If Lee Family Properties does not comply, Des Moines will obtain a search warrant to gain access.

Once inside, inspectors will formally determine if the structure is sound or poses a hazard to the public. They will also inspect things like electrical connections and plumbing. (Inspectors would only look at the theater. City staff say they have no formal complaints from bar, deli or lounge tenants that would trigger an inspection.)

“The declaration of a public nuisance occurs when a structure is so deteriorated and damaged that it would not be safe for anyone to be inside,” Donovan said.

But it could scramble a sale, complicating financing and title transfers at a time when the potential buyer has approached Lee Family Properties to buy and restore the theater.

“When a property like this is on point, but there’s an interested party to make repairs and improve it, we often work with those entities to get things moving,” Christensen said.

Even if the theater were to be declared a public nuisance, the owner or purchaser could file a renovation agreement with Des Moines that outlines a schedule for repairs needed to stabilize the property and bring it up to code.

“In most cases, the objective is not to tear down the structure; it’s to get the structure repaired,” Donovan said.

Mike Ludwig, deputy director of city development services, said any new owners should replace ceilings and walls and bring the building’s electrical, heating and air conditioning systems up to code, regardless of any damage from the storm. water and snow.

The potential buyer, who declined to comment when contacted by the registry, has plans for a historic remodel and plans to apply for state and federal historic tax credits to restore its original mid-century charm. To conform to historical standards, a developer could, for example, determine whether the building’s green glazed brick, which originally ran along the bottom of the exterior, is still behind the stone that sits there today, said architect Wilke-Shapiro. It could also restore what he called the “definitive character” marquee, which has been slightly altered over the years, and the lobby that leads viewers or spectators into the theater space.

Ingersoll Avenue is in an urban renewal district, which means Des Moines could also help with financial incentives, although negotiation won’t happen until “we have more details on an actual reuse of property,” Ludwig said.

But these discussions are still far away. It is imperative that the theater gets a new roof as soon as possible to prevent further damage, city leaders said.

“It’s important to recognize that they’re not going to show movies or bring in a band in six months,” Wilke-Shapiro said. “So stabilization as a first step is going to be super important – making sure the building doesn’t deteriorate further while all this groundwork continues.”

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