Westminster planning to buy, renovate theater; Arts groups would use period building for performances, classes; REGIONAL NEWS


Walking through the darkened Carroll Theater, architect Dean R. Camlin discerns more than worn red vinyl theater seats and crumbling plaster ceilings. He sees a classic, 500-seat movie house where he and his wife went on their first date 21 years ago.

He also sees an art deco building that could again attract arts patrons and rejuvenate West Main Street -- if the city of Westminster carries out its plan to buy and renovate the structure for use by the Carroll County Arts Council and other arts groups.

"There's a lot of interest in this building," said Camlin, gazing at the crumbling facade where a triangular marquee used to advertise films showing inside. "The city is really interested in putting some money into this block -- sprucing things up and making this section of West Main better by the theater being an example.

"There will be a lot of people paying attention to this, and inevitably there will be a lot of people disappointed with the end result, if just for the fact that we're not going to restore it to a full-size theater," said Camlin, who was hired by the city to evaluate the cost and feasibility of renovating the building. "But there isn't a need for a 500-seat theater showing one show anymore."

With about two weeks left until Westminster's option to buy the theater expires, city officials have found nearly all the necessary money. Carroll County commissioners voted recently to contribute up to $310,000 -- the price of the building -- toward the $810,000 project. The renovation costs would be split among the city, the state and the Arts Council.

The Westminster Common Council decided last month to buy the building from Church of the Open Door, which has used the mustard-colored building for its Sunday ministry programs since the movie theater closed about 10 years ago.

The building's exterior is partially covered in pebbled stucco, which Camlin hopes can be stripped and replaced with black porcelain tiles to replicate the theater's original finish.

Inside, remnants from the theater's commercial life mix with religious items from church programs.

A slip of red paper that reads "JESUS IS" hangs above the lobby's purple velvet "Coming Soon" showcase. Religious posters flank the popcorn machines on the concession counter. In the theater proper, the ceiling is stained from unrepaired leaks, the floor pockmarked where rows of seats were torn out, the projection room crammed with costumes, holiday ornaments and garbage bags stuffed with rolls of toilet paper.

"The building has not been updated with an eye toward preserving anything," Camlin said with a nod toward the wood paneling and beige acoustical tile of the lobby. "It would be nice if we could find some photos of the way it looked in its heyday."

From Camlin and the Church of the Open Door's pastor to city officials and arts council staff, everyone involved in the project acknowledges that the theater needs a lot of work -- a half-million dollars' worth at least.

Structural changes will be required to make the building accessible to the disabled and meet the city's building code. A wall dividing the vaulted auditorium might have to be removed. Contractors will have to add dressing rooms, storage space for sets, and new lighting and sound systems to create a performance space. "It's not as if we could walk in tomorrow and put on a play," said Sandy Oxx, executive director of the arts council. "But there's just a real neat feeling of nostalgia when you go in there."

With eight times more space than the arts council's current quarters in the Winchester Exchange, the renovated theater would allow artists to display and sell their work from small storefronts on either side of the theater entrance, Oxx said. Rooms upstairs could serve as offices and as classrooms for painting and drawing, ceramics and theater lessons. The auditorium could be used for anything from poetry readings and piano recitals to theatrical productions and classic movie viewings.

"We want this facility to be welcoming and visually attractive, to bring people to that end of town," Oxx said. "That block does not really have a retail anchor, and since I'll be working there all day, I want things to draw people there during the day so it's not a ghost town except for the nights we're having a performance."

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