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Still a ‘Grand’ vision

Restoration of theater, original pipe organ ongoing

FORGING AHEAD — Scott Dressel stands outside the Grand Theater at 121 S. Fourth St., Steubenville, and inside the annex, below, where restoration of the theater’s original Wurlizter pipe organ continues. Ten years into the overall undertaking he worked to initiate and lead in the establishment of the Grand Theater Restoration Project, an all-volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit formed by a group of local citizens, Dressel remains an optimist and visionary that the piece of local history will one day thrive as a performing arts center and downtown attraction. -- Janice Kiaski

STEUBENVILLE — Tens years in to the Grand Theater Restoration Project, Scott Dressel can still close his eyes and visualize the finished product.

He sees it with his eyes open, too, along with the reality side of returning to grandeur a piece of local history — the only one of Steubenville’s five theaters still standing.

“I can see it done — it’s just getting from here to there that’s so complicated,” he said during an interview Tuesday on the status of the Grand, located at 121 S. Fourth St.

“We’re about one-fifth of the way done,” he said of the undertaking to bring back to life the building constructed in 1885 and operated as a theater from 1925 until 1979.

As with everything else, the pandemic has had an adverse impact, according to Dressel. “It slowed us down significantly,” he said.

“COVID has really messed things up as far as, for example, this year, the capital bill grants that have been providing a great deal of our funding from the state didn’t happen this year, because they had to shut everything off to handle COVID, so we’re hoping things will get back to normal after the end of this year any way, but it’s a problem. It slowed everything down, not just us, obviously,” Dressel said.

“We were lucky enough to get a $10,000 grant from the county that will keep the utilities on for the year,” he said on the brighter side of finances, referring to money nonprofits got through the CARES Act.

“We got some donations this year. We have some people who support us all the time and then some other unusual ones,” he said. “What we really need is a $2 million or $3 million donation from somebody but until that happens, we will keep doing what we can do.”

So far about $1 million has gone into the project — funds from grants, fundraisers and outright donations and faithful supporters. “We’re about a million dollars in, not counting in-kind work of volunteers,” he said, noting, “we have more than a hundred thousand hours of volunteer work.”

And that’s all translated into progress.

“We have gotten a lot done. Since we’ve started, aside from the roof and its maintenance, we’ve also done all the structural steel under the balcony that was finished as of last year, so that’s done as far as any kind of repair work that has to be done,” Dressel explained.

“We started the ceiling as you know with the completion of the main dome. There’s still a lot more to do, but that big dome in the front up above the scaffolding is done. Obviously we cleaned it all out,” Dressel continued. “We put in new gas service, new electric service, temporary heat in most of the building. Some of it’s permanent. The main theater is temporary because once the theater is finished we have to put a quieter system in.”

“We are working right now on electrical in the ballroom space, which is approved. We have a permit and everything to do that,” he said, “Once that’s done then the ceilings will go back up in both ballrooms and then the next big thing in the ballroom space is getting the elevator shaft designed and built and then the elevator in there, which is expensive,” he said.

“We did the front of the theater — that took a few years — and we actually have a little bit left to do. We’re hoping to qualify for one more facade grant so we’re going to try to apply in the next round again and see if we can get one more and get that last storefront done.”

Another facet of ongoing work at the Grand is a musical one — restoration of the theater’s original Wurlitzer pipe organ that was installed in 1925. The organ was returned to the theater in 2015 from the Elmer Friend home in Illinois. Friend had bought it in 1988, and his children ended up donating it back to the theater after his death.

“The pipe organ, which was sold off to Elmer and Audrey Friend in Rockford, Ill., we got it back about four years ago or so, and we’ve been working on it on Saturdays ever since,” Dressel said, pointing out efforts have halted somewhat since the pandemic.

A group of volunteers led by Joe Humpe is involved in the project, however, according to Dressel. “He is the master organ builder helping us, and he’s built many, many, many organs,” Dressel said of Humpe. “Another of his organs that we got out of a church in Maynard, Ohio, a few years ago we’re installing in the ballroom so we’ll actually have two,” he added.

The Wurlitzer work is nearing completion.

“All of these things that hold pipes or hold sound effects — all the chest and actions that they’re called — they are all done so now we have to put it all together so we are recreating both rooms, the upper and lower chambers that are on the side of the theater here. This is one and that messy piece of paper has exactly been laid out, that’s the shape of the floor for the other one so we’ll cover it with plywood because the original planks are bad and then we’re going to set everything up on it and run all the windlines between every one. The new ones we’ve made out of PVC. The old ones were made out of tin,” he explained.

“And then we’re going to take it all apart and move it into the theater when the theater is closer to being done, because we don’t want all that dirt to get into everything,” he added. Ultimately the restored organ will be returned to its original location near the stage.

The work is being done appropriately in what they call the “organ room,” actually the annex of the theater, to the left of the main entrance.

“Above it in the upper two floors will be offices for people running the theater some day as well as a catering kitchen where caterers can set up food, not actually cooking, but a set-up space,” Dressel said. There also will be men’s and women’s restrooms for the ballroom space. “That will be above us so this will be an addition to the lobby, like a retail lobby/small event space. It will connect through to the next storefront, which will connect through to the lobby, because next door on this side will be the elevator and the men’s and women’s restrooms and the stairway access to the ballroom as well,” he said in explaining the layout.

“Basically from here over will be one big lobby some day because you’re going to need a big enough indoor space for a thousand people to wait for something to start,” he said. “Years ago they would wait outside. Those days are over. People don’t want to wait outside any more,” he said.

Volunteers have been working individually on the organ, according to Dressel.

“Joe has been down a couple times. I have been coming in. We cleaned and moved a bunch of stuff around. Brian Wilson was working on the console, which is the big thing you run it at, that’s almost done and incredibly complicated,” he said. “There are thousands of connections in here. I got the blower running. The original blower, Brian and Tom Dear put it back together, and then we got it hooked up to test it. It generates a massive amount of air. It will power the pipe organ as far as wind so we’re getting closer,” he said.

Dressel anticipates the organ could be finished within a year. “It will sit in here finished. We’ll cover it up, and we can open the door and do tours and give concerts and such,” he said, envisioning it could be used for a daily noon concert, entertaining a lunch crowd.

“We can get the ceiling done next and we have all the steel 2-by-4s or steel studs to do the walls from the front of the theater to the back of the theater. They need to be put together,” Dressel said in noting other work to be done. “A fire-resistant drywall will go on that and all the decorative elements will be applied to that, which are simple compared to the ceiling.

“We’re like part way there, but it’s just getting from here to there,” he said.

“Two big fire exits are another big deal so outside the theater where outside stairs used to be eventually will be a brick tower built there with stairs inside of it for a fire escape on each side.”

Dressel sees it as important to continue with the project to fruition — that it’s part of a bigger picture that not everyone sees as he does.

Asked what he’d like readers to understand about the theater restoration, Dressel noted, “Having a theater in your downtown area is a place to have events happen that will attract people that will fill up your restaurants and bars and shops, and it’s also an event space for unusual events.”

“Everywhere else where they have their theater open — of course this year being the exception — it really makes their downtown tick as far as volume of traffic. You want people to come from outside and spend money here. People from outside spending money here grows your economy. Every dollar spent gets spent seven more times before it leaves that place, so you want outside money to come in for the economy to get bigger and have more circulating in it,” he said.

“If everybody locally just spends it here, that helps, too, but if everybody keeps going to Robinson (Township, Pa.) and spends money there, that shrinks your economy so you have to change that trend,” he added.

The Grand’s completed restoration and use can help foster the downtown’s growth, according to Dressel, who noted Steubenville had five theaters at one time. “Interestingly enough, the Grand was also the first of those five built and it’s still standing. It’s still independent. It will remain that way.” The others were the Capitol, Paramount, the Olympic and the Ohio.

“Things are better here,” according to Dressel, “There’s a lot happening. If you look around, there’s all kind of new stuff going on.

“The Grand is complicated, we’re a small community so our means of making things happen are limited,” Dressel said. “We need the state and federal government maybe eventually (to help). We haven’t had any help from the federal government, but the state is what really could make a big difference so hopefully our representatives will keep pushing for the Grand so we’ll get more funding,” he added.

“One of the biggest challenges we have is getting architectural work done. We really need a large architectural firm to donate it,” Dressel said. “We have two architects we have paid some to do various parts of it. It would be nice to get all the drawings finished once and for all. We have an as-is drawing. We need someone to help us finish that.

“That’s a big ask — time is money,” he said.

Dressel said it’s fair to say he’s an optimist and visionary when it comes to the Grand’s restoration, an undertaking he generated support for and which led to the establishment of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

“I think we’ll get there. We need to get our state reps in here again,” he said. “The state needs to be back in a position to do that kind of funding, and it’s not just us that lost funding but lots of organizations,” he said, referring to the pandemic’s impact on nonprofits.

Theater restorations, though time-consuming and involving expense, aren’t necessarily unusual. There’s a theater in Marietta, the closest example, for instance, which took almost 30 years, he said, and Playhouse Square in Cleveland.

To naysayers who might say it takes too long and costs too much, he points to the reconstruction of old Fort Steuben, which took 25 years. “Who knew,” Dressel commented of an area now home to a visitor center, a thriving tourist attraction with the Nutcracker Village and a summer concert series in the amphitheater and other attractions.

With a concert rain date, the Grand, for example, could be the alternative site for a summer concert, Dressel offered the suggestion. The Grand Theater’s anticipated use is as a performing arts center with a museum of performing arts history of Steubenville as well as other items of interest. There would be two ballrooms for events and the lobby.

“There’s a variety of things you could do,” he said of its use. “It’s really endless. Whatever people want to have going on so you don’t have to drive 40 to 50 miles to see something.”

“Things are changing slowly,” he said of the theater’s steady-but-sure transformation. “It is fun,” he said of the ongoing effort and results.

“It’s been a rough year, I do get tired, but there’s potential here, and we need to keep working at it, and we will.”

To support the restoration, checks can be made payable to the Steubenville Historic Landmarks Foundation and mailed to the Grand Theater at 121 S. Fourth St., Steubenville OH 43952. No donation is too small. “Any amount we can use,” Dressel said. “I have people who have given $5, $10 and people who give $500 or a $1,000. All of that makes a difference.” For information, contact Dressel at scott@bayberryproperties. Com or call (740) 632-2899.

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)

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