Franklin's Star Attraction

Saving a historic movie house in central Tennessee

In recent years, the Art Deco Franklin Theatre in Franklin, Tenn., was in dire need of restoration, with crumbling concrete floors, unstable walls, and faulty plumbing that created a mini waterfall down the stairwell. Yet night after night, patrons packed the house. How did the owners keep the seats full despite the building's deteriorating condition? "They said their main strategy was to keep the lights low," says Mary Pearce, executive director of the nonprofit Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County.

In 2007, however, the building changed hands and a new owner doubled the rent, forcing the longtime tenants out. Local residents feared for the future of the 1937 theater, the earliest in town to feature sound. Would the new owner demolish it? "I just knew we had to do something," Pearce says. "We had to intervene."

As Pearce and Aubrey Preston, a preservation advocate, began considering ways to purchase the theater, a Heritage Foundation board member and volunteer named Emily Magid stepped forward with a $1.75 million loan (which she eventually forgave) to purchase the building. Her donation kick-started a fundraising campaign for the structure's restoration and inspired several million-dollar donors, many of whom offered grants with ambitious matching requirements—just as the stock market crashed in October 2008. "Nobody knew what was going on with the market, and we were asking them to write us a check," Preston says. "It was intimidating."

The donations poured in anyway. By the end of the year, the foundation had begun planning for a $6.2 million, floor-to-ceiling restoration. Crews rebuilt the theater's ticket booth and the balcony, which had been removed 40 years ago. They also acoustically engineered the theater—outfitting it with electrical, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems that emit minimal ambient noise—and installed cutting-edge sound and lighting systems costing $1.4 million. "You listen to live music and movies differently, and we didn't want to make compromises for either," Preston says.

The foundation focused on making the restoration ecofriendly: More than half the materials workers used were recycled, and the new roof they installed reflects heat, which should reduce utility costs. The project is expected to achieve LEED Silver certification.

In January, more than 3,000 people filled Main Street to celebrate the lighting of the new marquee, a replica of the original, which had been removed in the 1970s. And in June, the renovated theater reopened as a movie house and concert venue. Country music artists Trace Adkins, Vince Gill, and Amy Grant have offered to play fundraising concerts at the theater to support its maintenance and operation, and several guest speakers signed up to discuss preservation issues in the community.

"The big-box theaters have wiped out the small, one-screen theaters," Preston says. "But we're not going to be competing with them. When people come to Franklin Theatre to see a movie or a concert, we're giving them a completely unique experience. We're giving them something to celebrate."

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