Tuesday, February 02, 1999

Emery Theater may regain glint

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Although plagued by neglect, the Emery is "one of the finest concert halls in the world," says Robert Howes, chairman of theater operations.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
        A historic downtown Cincinnati theater may finally get its curtain call.

        Emery Center Corp. (ECC), a non-profit collaboration of arts, historic preservation and downtown development advocates, has secured $240,000 in start-up financing and selected a developer to revive the Emery Theatre. The plan could bring new life to a blighted block of Walnut Street in Over-the-Rhine.

        Improvements on the theater — an 87-year-old acoustically pure venue where arts patrons flocked until the early 1980s — and the creation of 62 market rate apartments in an adjoining building could begin next year. Cost is estimated at $14 million to $18 million.

Plans call for the Emery Theatre restorations to be funded, in part, by revenue from the apartments planned for the adjoining Ohio College of Applied Sciences building. Plans include:

• 62 one- and two-bedroom apartments, ranging in size from 800 to 1,600 square feet. Rent would range from $500 to $1,400.

• Two levels of resident parking.

• Total project cost is estimated at $14 million to $18 million.

        “This would be a major economic development for Over-the-Rhine and downtown,” said Beth Sullebarger, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association and ECC board member. “The combination of housing, theater and (theater) office would provide round-the-clock activity.”

        At least three attempts to restore the Emery have failed since the early 1980s. The last effort, in 1988, was stalled as the arts community focused on creating the Aronoff Center, three blocks south on Walnut.

        Last year, ECC received permission from the University of Cincinnati to craft a rehab plan. UC owns the Emery and the attached former Ohio College of Applied Sciences (OCAS) building on Central Parkway.

        Before ECC can move forward, UC trustees must approve specific plans and lease the property to the group.

        ECC intends to hire an executive director by March to spearhead a capital campaign. A presentation on the project to UC trustees is scheduled for May. A board vote is possible in June.

        The selected developer, Mansur Real Estate Services Inc. of Indianapolis, is working with ECC to create a comprehensive funding plan.

        W. Robert Bates, Mansur's director of historic development, said he is not deterred by the unsuccessful efforts to resurrect the Emery.

        “We will do everything in our power to return the Emery to the shining gem that it was for downtown Cincinnati,” he said.

        Built between 1909 and 1911, the Emery has been plagued by neglect for more than a quarter-century.

        The 1,950-seat theater was built in conjunction with the OCAS building, (originally used by the Ohio Mechanics Institute) by philanthropist Mary M. Emery in honor of her husband, Thomas J. Emery, a wealthy Cincinnati entrepreneur.

        Before Mr. Emery died in 1906, he had plans to build a technical school. The Emery Auditorium, as it was first named, initially was an architectural aside to the school for student functions.

        A confluence of events transformed the planned school auditorium into a concert hall recognized then — and today — as one of the best acoustical theaters in the nation.

        A key part of that transformation occurred in 1909. Acclaimed Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski decided to make the Emery the orchestra's home, which it was until 1937, when the CSO returned to the larger Music Hall.

        Building by ear, the 27-year-old conductor worked with Harvey E. Hannaford — of Samuel Hannaford and Sons, Architects — to instill top-quality sound design into the theatre.

        In the back row — about 60 from the front — an audience member can hear the full volume of a single violin chord played at center stage.

        “Without having to use microphones, you can hear it very well, even in the back row,” said Alan Yaffe, an arts management consultant and the co-director of the arts administration program at UC's College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).

        Robert Howes, an ECC board member and violist for the CSO, said the Emery's acoustics are comparable to Carnegie Hall in New York City, echoing a statement Mr. Stokowski made after the CSO's first Emery concert in 1912.

        “It's one of the finest concert halls in the world,” Mr. Howes said.

        That sound quality is apparent today — even as paint peels from the once majestic walls.

        Restoring the Emery/OCAS complex also serves a vital downtown economic development need, said Kathy Schwab, an ECC board member and residential development adviser for Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI).

        Ms. Schwab has pressed for a comprehensive, city-sponsored plan for downtown housing. DCI has a goal of bringing 10,000 additional residents downtown by the end of 2000. About 153 downtown market-rate units are under construction or redevelopment now. Another 150 units — including those proposed at OCAS — will be in the works in 2000. Still, Ms. Schwab said, Cincinnati could use more.

        A September 1998 downtown housing study completed by Project Market Decisions Inc. for DCI found a 98 percent occupancy rate in Cincinnati's 1,200-unit market rate housing market.

        Alfred Moore, 73, chairman of the ECC board and a great-nephew of Mary M. Emery, said the plan would extend downtown's business district into Over-the-Rhine.

        “The theater is an acoustically almost perfect place, and it fits in with the other remaining theaters in town,” Mr. Moore said. “So it can serve audiences that are either too big or too small for the other halls.”

        “I hope the theater itself will become a vibrant asset to the community.”


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