When the downtown Milton fire of January 2009 was over, the historic Imogene Theatre stood blackened, broken and soggy.
“The fire was our worst nightmare,” said Wes Meiss, president of the Santa Rosa Historical Society, which owns the theater. “At the opposite end of the spectrum, though, it was a blessing. I don’t think we would ever have had the opportunity to strip it down and put it back the way it should have been.”
The Imogene has now undergone an $800,000 restoration – an effort that not only corrected the fire damage, but also brought the 1912 Vaudeville venue closer to its original state and installed a modern sprinkler and alarm system.
The restored theater reopened to the public for the first time with the Milton Ghost Walk.
A black-tie, official grand opening is set for Jan. 6 – the third anniversary of the blaze.
Milton Mayor Guy Thompson welcomed the reborn Imogene.
“I am very proud of the efforts by the Historical Society in getting that building back up and running,” Thompson said. “It would have been a tremendous loss, not just in our downtown, but in our whole county, to have lost such a facility that provides so many cultural events. That is a big part of our community.”
The restored space already has been booked for weddings, Christmas parties, the December Gallery Night and other events, Meiss said.
The Santa Rosa Young Professionals organization is interested in using the Imogene for a Mardi Gras ball, according to SRYP Networking/Social Chairman Jayer Williamson.
“That theater has been a staple for downtown,” said Williamson, who went to dances at the Imogene when he was a student at Milton High School.
“Without it there, you’d lose more than just a building,” he said. “You lose a little bit of the heritage and history of downtown.”
The building is a venue for everything from weddings and dances to political rallies.
“There are not a lot of places around here to have events,” Williamson said.
The fire that damaged the Imogene was caused by an electrical problem in an adjoining building. The blaze destroyed that building and a third of the Imogene. The theater survived with scorched bricks inside and out, a collapsed balcony and melted curtains.
“This is a total transformation,” Meiss said. “It shows what can be done when you do it the right way. We consulted with the state Department of Historic Preservation. We wanted to go back as original as it was in 1912.”
That included covering the exposed earth-tone brick inside the auditorium with cream-colored plaster and replacing the drop-tile ceiling with tongue-and-groove wood.
The new ceiling is a gold-olive color, designed to match the original. Quina Grundhoefer Architects used computer analysis to determine the ceiling’s original hue.
Quina Grundhoefer, like contractor Sanborn Builders, specializes in historic restoration.
The project also included hand paining the proscenium – the ornate, molded frame around the stage – by local artist Donna Lunsford. Her work included 14-karat gold leaf details.
Work at the Imogene is not complete. The $800,000 from insurance was not enough to get everything done.
“There are some things we don’t have,” Meiss said. “We’re still going to be launching our ($2 million) capital campaign early in the year.”
In the auditorium, there are no theatrical lights, nor are there any chairs or tables.
The Ghost Walk is a major fundraiser for the society. Meiss expects that to raise as much as $15,000, enough to purchase chairs and tables for the auditorium.
The original fixed seating for the balcony, which was removed years ago, has been donated back to the theater but needs to be restored.
The insurance also did not cover renovations downstairs in the parlor, museum and kitchen.
The society has purchased the lot to the west of the theater, where one of the burned buildings stood. Members hope to one day build an accessory building there.
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