Posted on July 20, 2021
Mike East, Vice President of Mechanical Engineering along with Erin Jennings, Interior Designer at krM Architecture gave a presentation during the Preserving Historic Places Conference with Indiana Landmarks. The presentation took us behind the curtain of Historic Eagles Theatre in Wabash, IN. View the presentation HERE.
Preserving and restoring Wabash’s Eagles Theatre for the next 200 years
If walls could talk, the Eagles Theatre in Downtown Wabash, Indiana would tell you stories about Thomas Jefferson’s administration. Since 1806, the Theatre has been home to vaudeville shows, live performances, and movies. In 215 years, innovations from indoor plumbing to the Internet have changed the world and the Theatre.
Many of the building’s additions remained highly visible. Ethernet cables ran along and under stairway rails. The elevators didn’t access all of the floors. The bathrooms weren’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Swamp cooling air conditioners devoured wall space.
In 1985 the Theatre, now owned and managed by the Honeywell Foundation, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Being on the Register opened the facility up to additional grant funding for restoration and preservation, but also new rules and regulations about how new designs impact the character of the building.
Mike East, V.P. of Mechanical Engineering at R.E. Dimond and Associates, along with Erin Jennings, Associate Partner, Interior + Architectural Designer and the team from krM Architecture, and engineers from Arsee Engineers to preserve the building’s character and identity while giving it much needed renovations.
Preservation meets restoration
“The National Park Service identifies the approach toward historic properties,” says Jennings. “There are four main parts: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration—such as removing non-original period elements—and reconstruction.” The Park Service also encourages new resource-saving systems.
“We like to say we encountered lots of opportunities, not challenges,” Jennings adds. And the challenges added up. Anyone with a historic home who has ever sought a replacement for a sixty-year-old doorknob or light fixture knows some of the challenges. “You can imagine the problems finding a replacement bulb globe for a 200-year old building,” says East.
“There were other challenges, too, like not having any existing blueprints, unforeseen conditions, water infiltration as we dug into the basement, limited space for equipment and around the building, and finding all sorts of things installed in places you didn’t think they would be,” says East.
The team encountered residential-grade water heaters, HVAC units, and sump pumps that were tacked on as needed, leaving the facility with a hodgepodge of equipment never designed for such a large building. An addition to the west side of the building sat on top of mysterious underground piping the team had little information about, too.
Updating and upgrading all of these parts of the building while making it authentic to its 200-year history were key to the project, grant funding, and the community.
New upgrades and building uses, including classrooms and a second theatre
“There were a lot of opportunities to repurpose and preserve a lot of historic elements, like the marquee and lettering,” says Jennings. “And the Honeywell Foundation were great partners. They wanted to make structural changes to have a lower-level second theatre.”
The area under the concessions and lobby space and much of the basement were historically inaccessible to the public. The team found creative ways to bring that area to life and make room for a second forty-nine-seat theatre. With limited space for equipment in the basement, the team built a conveyor system to manually remove debris by hand.
“The Honeywell team had an acute focus on involving local talent and craftsman,” says Jennings. “One of the muralists on this team did a great job templating the existing murals and preserving the new ones,” she adds. “We also took great pride in making sure the fire suppression and light fixtures didn’t compete with the murals.”
Despite being built as a theater, most shows of yore didn’t require or assume the back-of-house crew needed a green room, changing rooms, or much space at all. During the renovation, crews used the space under the stage to add private changing and green rooms for performers.
The top-most balcony, originally used to segregate races, had a separate entrance and exit. Teams reconstructed the balcony to ADA and code compliance, re-integrating the space into the broader experience complete with private suites and a new all-glass control room.
The old swamp air conditioner, which worked by passing outdoor air over wool cooled with fresh water, was removed and the wall it consumed repaired. In addition, new boilers—including the removal of several old ones the team suspected may have been abandoned due to generations of people not wanting to move the mammoth tanks—were added, too.
“We worked hard to make sure the restrooms were accessible. And getting an elevator that was programmable in the space was hard, too,” says East. Using slight dips and changes in the floor elevation, the team was able to install two working elevator cabs that, for the first time in 215 years, safely served all four floors and patrons of the Theatre.
Flexibility for the present and future
The Eagles Theatre is now ready for the next 200 years of service. Classroom space, events, catering, food preparation, live-action, and movies are all available under one roof.
Knowing the Theatre will continue to change with the world around it, Jennings excitedly notes, “The second and third floors have a flexible ‘canvas’, so rooms can change as needs change.”
“The number of events to go on in this building at the same time was a challenge,” says East. “Honeywell did a good job of making use of every bit of space.”
You can watch a recorded presentation from June 2021 with East and Jennings to the Indiana Landmarks Foundation on YouTube.