Group sets sights on National Register listing for shuttered Pittsfield theater

The Zoe Preservation Society has received grant money that will allow it to pursue having the historic Zoe Theater listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Apr. 28, 2012 2:13 pm Updated: May. 12, 2012 4:15 pm


Herald-Whig Staff Writer

PITTSFIELD, Ill. — The Zoe Preservation Society is slowly breathing new life — and dollars — into the shuttered Pittsfield movie theater.

A $1,500 heritage preservation grant through Landmarks Illinois, more than matched with $3,500 from the city of Pittsfield, clears the way for the preservation society to pursue listing the Zoe Theater on the National Register of Historic Places. The group is seeking $12,000 more in grant funds "to pay for an architectural and mechanical needs analysis of the building itself, to figure out what we're going to need to rehabilitate it," society Treasurer Kaye Iftner said.

"We're excited. Things are starting," Iftner said. "We've been quietly working in the background, but these things take a long time. It took a long time to get 501(c)(3) status, and we've had that for a while."

Next up, Iftner said, may be another membership drive.

"The more people raise their hand and say yes they're going to help," the better, she said. "There's a need not just for money but for physical support when we start doing cleanups again."

The thoughtful, step-by-step process has a goal of saving the Zoe and restoring it as a working movie theater.

Early discussions suggested using the building for live community theater productions, but Iftner said further study showed the structure is better-suited for movies.

"We'll probably be able to use the stage area for meetings and presentations, but it's really not set up to be a live performance theater," she said.

"If we get a working movie theater and bring people back down to the square and revitalize the downtown of Pittsfield, it will be a huge boon for the whole area. Right now you have to drive to Hannibal, Jacksonville or Quincy to see a movie, except for the drive-in, and based on the business they do, people will go to movies."

The preservation society hired In(Alliance), a Springfield-based consulting firm, for the National Register nomination. Darius Bryjka, the firm's principal, already has visited the Zoe.

"We know it's eligible to be listed with local significance. What he's trying to do is write the nomination to make a good argument that the Zoe is significant on a statewide level, too," Iftner said. "The architecture of the Zoe, the facade, the glass panels on the front, is very unique. We think we can make a good argument. The excitement of that is it opens up the other big awards that you only qualify for if you're listed on the National Register. It's an important first step."

The facade's cream-colored original Vitrolite panels, topped in some areas with red squares, "would have been a very expensive extravagance for the theater back when it was built," Iftner said. "Somebody put a lot of additional care and thought into the design of the Zoe."

The building stands out for the Vitrolite, a pigmented structural glass, on its exterior and its original marquee.

Plans call for working with Carbondale-based White and Borgognoni Architects on the needs analysis. Steve Holowicki with Two Rivers Regional Council of Public Officials, who is working with the preservation society on the grant applications, said "this is by no means a done deal."

"It's a bit of a long shot," Holowicki said. "Nevertheless, after all this is finished, we should be able to go to the city and ask them to issue revenue bonds to pay for rehabilitation of the theater."

Final paperwork is expected from the society by mid-May, then the grant applications will be submitted.

Outside funding sources could be the best option for the Zoe.

The city's revenue is down — thanks in part to the state's budget crisis and because the warm winter meant less gas sales — so "putting any money into the Zoe probably is not going to happen," said Bill McCartney, the city's economic development consultant. "It will be up to the mayor and the City Council to make the final decision.

"The little stuff we can handle. The big stuff, they'll have to find a benefactor who will step forward and kick in whatever is needed."

Vacant since 1987, the Zoe "structurally is not in that bad of shape," Iftner said. "It looks bad. The ceiling has fallen, but the roof above is sound."

The theater was nominated for this year's 10 Most Endangered Historic Places list published by Landmarks Illinois. The list focuses public attention each year on the plight of threatened historic places in Illinois to spur positive action and create opportunities for preservation solutions.

Not selected for the list this year, the Zoe "is on their radar," Holowicki said. "It would a good idea to promote it on a much larger scale, especially with art deco societies around the country that might be interested in pitching in on this."

The building opened as a theater on Sept. 13, 1951, closed in the 1980s and was taken over by the city in 2004. Restoration efforts began in 2008 for the unique art deco-styled building. The preservation society signed a formal three-year lease for the building in November 2009. The city last year expressed renewed interest in the building.

"(The society) is moving this thing ahead as quickly as they can, operating with very little funding," McCartney said.