Saturday, June 19, 2010

19 June 2009: Georgia Theatre Destroyed By Fire

On this day in 2009, Athenians gathered downtown to watch as a fire gutted the Georgia Theatre. The exterior walls are almost all that survived of the recently renovated historic building, and only remain standing today due to an investment by the property's owner, Wilmot Greene, to protect what is left of the original building because "there's just so much history here."

Before the ashes had cooled on the corner of Clayton and Lumpkin Streets, the imperative demand for reconstruction of the Georgia Theatre began. Fundraisers were held throughout the year, both for the building and for the employees who had suddenly lost their jobs. The sentiment that Athens would not be the same without the Georgia Theatre goes back to the days when it was, as it is now, merely a set of blueprints.

One of the earliest mentions of the building came in January of 1889, when the Weekly Banner-Watchman included the new Young Men's Christian Association building "is soon to be erected, and will be one of the prettiest buildings in the city."

Later that year, the Weekly Banner-Watchman described the day the cornerstone was laid for the building, on May 6th, 1889. According to the paper, "fully twelve hundred persons" came to the 3 o'clock ceremony. The "orator of the occasion" was Henry C. Tuck, a local attorney, a member of the Y. M. C. A., and, in 1889, Clarke County's representative to the Georgia Legislature.

He began his address by stating
No building was ever erected in Athens in which the people felt a deeper or more abiding interest than this--certainly none was ever erected before, in which the spirit and purpose of the work has so attracted and seized upon the hearts of the whole people.
The ceremonies had begun with a procession of 60 Y. M. C. A. members to the Masonic Hall, from where they then walked with 70 Masons, members of Mt. Vernon Lodge and visiting members, to the new building. A prayer was read, a choir sang with organ accompaniment, and it is reported that "The singing was remarkably good."

After Mr. Tuck spoke to the crowd, the Masonic ceremonies for laying the cornerstone followed, including the many items to be deposited within the stone. Some of the reported items were:
  • A list of members of the Y. M. C. A. engraved on a tablet of lead
  • Constitution and by-laws of the different secret orders in the city
  • List of subscribers in the Y. M. C. A. building
  • Various bills of Confederate money
  • Copies of the Athens Daily and Weekly Chronicle
  • Copy of the Banner-Watchman containing a profile of Judge Y. L. G. Harris

The newspaper reported that the cost of the new building in 1889 was $10,000 (approximately $1.24 million in today's costs). The rebuilding of the Georgia Theatre is estimated to cost $4 million, and construction is expected to start by the end of this June now that a loan has been secured from Athens First Bank & Trust.

Fundraising is still needed to meet the costs of the loan and reconstruction. The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation is collecting all donations for rebuilding in their Georgia Theatre Rehabilitation Fund, and Georgia Theatre t-shirts are available through the theatre's website.

Terrapin Ale is issuing a Terrapin Georgia Theatre Sessions series, with proceeds going to the rebuilding effort. In each release, one box will contain a golden ticket, entitling the owner to a lifetime of free shows at the new theatre. Local band Venice Is Sinking has just released Sand & Lines, an album recorded entirely in the Georgia Theatre in 2008, and will donate funds from sales to the Rehabilitation Fund.

Today, on the one year anniversary of the fire, the Georgia Theatre has opened an e-Bay store as a way to raise money, with such items as a master tape of Widespread Panic's first studio recording, salvaged posters from the fire, posters from benefit concerts, Band Together bracelets, and pens made from the charred 300-year-old pine beams of the Theatre roof. Other items will be added to the auction site over time.

Mr. Greene hopes to have the venue reopen by Spring, 2011.

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