The renovation of the Liberty Theatre building is keeping the past alive — in more ways than one.
Restoration workers have finished installing about 1,500 old bricks at the theater’s facade. The bricks resemble those of the original theater’s entrance before it closed six decades ago.
The bricks will be a prominent part of the re-creation of the facade of the old building. The entrance will include new doors and a metal awning that will cover much of the sidewalk running past it at 1010 Adams Ave. next to La Grande City Hall.
“It will look almost exactly as it did when the theater was open,” said Dale Mammen, a leader of the Liberty Theatre restoration project and a historical preservation consultant for the Liberty Theatre Foundation’s staff.
Ashley O’Toole, a member of the Liberty Theatre Foundation’s board, said people get excited when they see the highly visible facade being re-created, which is one reason focus is being placed upon it.
“We have made it a priority because we want to generate a buzz in the community,” O’Toole said.
The bricks at the entrance might look familiar to many area residents, because they are from the gym of the old Central Elementary School at K Avenue and Sunset Drive. The school and its gym were built in 1954 but were torn down about two years ago after the new Central at Second Street and H Avenue was constructed.
“I can’t stress enough how fortunate we are to have the bricks,” O’Toole said. “So many people went to school (at Central).”
The old Central School was taken down because it was in poor condition overall due to its age. The same cannot be said for the bricks inside its gym. They are in excellent shape because they were not exposed to the elements, Mammen said. He is delighted that the bricks will help preserve memories of the old school.
“It is nice to be able to help keep Central’s legacy alive,” he said.
Crews are also continuing to do extensive work on restoring the interior of the Liberty Theatre, which was built in 1910 and closed in 1959 after which its facade and lobby were torn out to accommodate retail establishments. Work being done now includes rebuilding the lobby and restoring utilities such as water and electricity. Work to be conducted in the future includes restoring the floor and balcony seating, building a staircase to the balcony, renovating the stage and much more.
Mammen hopes the Liberty Theatre will someday look as it did in the 1920s when it was in its second decade of operation and named the Arcade. Mammen and his wife, Ginny, selected the mid-1920s because that was when the Liberty Theatre was at its peak in terms of elegance and because they have the blueprints for major renovations made at the theater in 1923, which were found at the University of Washington. They also have photos of the theater taken that year, two inside and one outside. These photos are helping the Liberty Theatre Foundation restore the inside and outside of the building to what it looked like in the 1920s.
Long-range plans call for the Liberty Theatre building and the now vacant and historic Putnam building next to it to be part of the Liberty Complex. The Putnam building, which the Mammens own, will include a bakery, an extensive kitchen and eating area, a stage for entertainers, skylights, a dressing room for theater performers, offices, living quarters and much more. Work on the Putnam building, which like the Liberty Theatre will have a mid-1920s look, is being funded by the Mammens.
Much of the Liberty Theatre and Liberty Complex work is being funded by grants, including one for $200,000 received earlier this year from the Oregon Main Street Project. Mammen said $100,000 of this grant went to the Liberty Theatre and $100,000 went to the Putnam building restoration.
Mammen, who has lived in La Grande with his wife, Ginny, since 1967, first learned of the Liberty Theatre in 2009, when the owner of the building housing it showed it to him. He said he was overwhelmed with a feeling of excitement and concern the first time he saw the theater.
“At that time I said to myself, one of two things will happen: It will be restored or will be demolished (because of its age and the valuable space it occupies),” Mammen said.
He said his life has not been the same since then, explaining that he and Ginny had been “bitten by the historical preservation bug earlier, but this enhanced it to a new level.”
Mammen, who retired as an attorney 15 years ago, has been working feverishly to help restore the local treasure.
“I did not expect my retirement to be this exciting,” Mammen said.