Caretakers of the historic Crump Theatre, the iconic structure that has been mothballed for three years, continue to hold out hope that the right investor will arrive with a plan, a sustainable vision and an eye for restoration to bring the 127-year-old downtown theater back to life.

“What I hope to find — how can I say this? — is a Crump angel,” said Hutch Schumaker, who leads the Columbus Capital Foundation.

The foundation owns the building and works with the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County to keep it in stable condition while waiting for an investor who isn’t afraid of investing in basic mechanical upgrades and cosmetic work.

“It’s one of those gems that if we allow it to go away, we’re never going to get something like that back,” Schumaker said.

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Built in 1889 as a theater at 425 Third St., the entertainment hall — which once seated 632 people — is known for the Art Deco-style lobby and a stage that’s seen a wide range of performances, from John Phillip Souza back in the day to Seymour-native John Mellencamp who performed there Sept. 23, 2008, during a fundraiser for Columbus flood relief.

“It was phenomenal,” Schumaker said of Mellencamp’s show. “The whole place was just electric. Everyone just loved the venue.”

Closing time

The Crump’s fortunes have been waning since it was ordered closed three years ago by then-Columbus Fire Chief Dave Allmon, citing safety hazards that needed to be addressed.Those include the lack of a fire sprinkler system and functioning fire escapes, a stage floor that does not meet structural codes and a water-damaged mechanical room that would be unsafe.

One of the consultants who worked on a renovation plan for the Crump in 2014 told city officials that the Crump was like a giant fireplace.

Architect Van Phillips said the Crump is similar to The Iroquois Theatre in Chicago which caught fire in 1903 and claimed the lives of 602 people, 212 who were children. When fire broke out on the stage, people at the Iroquois fought to reach exits, many dying from smoke inhalation.

The Crump’s stage is just like that of the Iroquois, with no ventilation and no fire curtain, the architect said. Code inspections through the years failed to address several dangerous aspects of the theater, particularly the stage.

An effort by former Mayor Kristen Brown’s administration to pump city redevelopment money into renovating the building fell flat as Columbus City Council members asked for accountability as to who would run the facility and proof it could sustain itself financially.

A Crump Steering Committee was formed and made recommendations to the Columbus Redevelopment Commission on May 19, 2014, including a plan for a 450-seat theater renovation, replacing the stage and fly house and expanding into areas to the east and into a nearby alley. The commission tabled the $10.8 million plan for renovations and another $20,000 to pay a consultant to develop a theater business plan.

On June 3, 2014, the city council followed suit, balking at spending $10.8 million in tax increment financing funds to pay for the renovation after learning the city would have to purchase the theater to do the work.

Since then, the foundation has continued to keep the building insured and is keeping basic essentials such as electricity on in the building, said Tracy Souza, Heritage Fund president and CEO. However, none of the fire marshal safety issues have been addressed and the foundation is only investing about $1,500 a year in upkeep.

“We’re open to anyone who might be interested in purchasing it,” Souza said. “Even now, we still get people who call and want to have an event there and we have to tell them it’s not possible.”

Schumaker noted the foundation ended up shutting down the building’s aged decades-old boiler, which was costing $5,000 a month to run, to keep expenses down.

He has taken people through the Crump in recent weeks, and said the visitors remarked on how well the building remains preserved despite being closed for three years.

Crump champion

“There just isn’t anybody wanting to step up and take on this project,” Schumaker said, comparing what needs to happen at the Crump to what local entrepreneur and businessman Tony Moravec did with renovating Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor downtown in 2009 and the Upland Columbus Pump House, which opened last year.“We need to revive the public-private partnership. That last plan that was presented for the Crump, I knew from the start it wasn’t going to go,” Schumaker said. “They said, ‘Don’t worry about the budget.’ Nobody who would do this would say ‘Don’t worry about the budget.’ We need to get a budget that is realistic and see what can be done.”

Moravec, known for his ability to see the potential in a historical renovation of a building, said that whoever might be interested in the Crump needs to find a viable, long-term use for the structure or it will revert back to the mothballed state it is currently in.

Financial viability in the use for the building is key, Moravec said.

As soon as a building is renovated, the tax base immediately increases and it’s a double-edged sword — renovation costs plus taxes on the increased value, he said.

“It needs a practical, viable economic plan,” Moravec said of the Crump.

In addition to that, the Crump, a large building, has a host of code violations that will be expensive to renovate, he said.

“Smaller, less complicated projects don’t have that and it’s easier to find a purpose for the building,” Moravec said. “The size of the building means it will take more resources.”

The cost of building mechanicals — of heating and plumbing, roofing and meeting fire codes — has to be considered, he said.

“And the third thing is parking,” he said of the Crump’s location, which does not have dedicated parking. “That complicates things for anything downtown.”

Saying he was lucky that the Upland Columbus Pump House had parking potential with its lot, the Crump doesn’t have that at this point, he said.

“One hundred years ago, the downtown wasn’t quite as busy as downtown today,” he said.

Describing the Crump as an “old, out-of-place building” in its current state, Moravec said the building needs someone to take it on as a pet project and some sort of organization to take ownership for operations and maintenance.

City’s hesitation

Mayor Jim Lienhoop, who was a councilman when the Crump renovation project was dropped, said he continues to have people approach the city about having the Crump renovated into a viable entertainment space.“And I really do appreciate that they want that to happen,” he said.

But there are two funding issues that must be addressed before any city involvement can occur, Lienhoop said.

The first is who will raise the money to renovate the building, as it is in a fair state of disrepair, he said.

“And secondly, and almost as important, what do you do after you renovate?,” Lienhoop asked. “Who will take responsibility for running the facility?”

Lienhoop said nearby communities North Vernon and Nashville each have their own playhouse operations. But it is his understanding that each requires separate fundraising to sustain operations beyond ticket sales for entertainment.

“We have to find some organizer who will be the Crump’s champion,” he said. “That’s where we are. No one’s stepped up yet.”

For the Crump to be successful and recoup the millions that are being requested, it would have to be rented out and used six to seven days a week, city officials said two years ago. And even then, the facility might need ongoing fundraising to pay for operations.

In 2014, the city paid Danielle McClelland, executive director of the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre in Bloomington, to develop a strategic operating plan for an arts facility at the Crump. In the plan, McClelland recommended the city own the Crump and contract with a nonprofit group to manage it. The plan called for $1.3 million in city support during two years of startup and five years of startup operations.

Lienhoop said he’s reluctant to raise a bunch of money to pursue renovations without knowing how the facility would, or could, be sustained into the future.

“I would be willing to get involved if I could see the operational plan and I felt like it had an opportunity for success,” he said. “But even fully-booked, a facility like that will still need funding for ongoing operations.”

Crump renovation timeline

Crump Theatre

Property location: 425 Third St., since 1889.

Owner: Columbus Capital Foundation purchased the Crump Theatre in 1994 on behalf of Historic Columbus Development. The nonprofit foundation was established to support The Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, the city of Columbus and Bartholomew County by preserving and maintaining land and buildings that have historic or architectural significance.

Current status: Closed since early 2014 for fire and safety hazards and listed for sale by the foundation.

January 2013: Columbus’ Arts District Coalition began looking at programming and funding options if the theater were to be renovated. Jayne Farber was hired by the city as a project consultant for the Columbus Arts District.

Jan. 25, 2013: Meeting with Mayor Kristen Brown to discuss direction for the Crump project, Request for Proposals parameters, recommendations for the steering committee and price tag for a feasibility study.

March 2013: Crump Steering Committee was named. In addition to Farber, city preservation consultant Richard McCoy and redevelopment director Heather Pope, all paid by the city, the steering committee’s volunteer community members included:

  • Cindy Frey, Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce president
  • Julie Gilmore, Eli Lilly & Co. employee
  • Bob Crider, managing director of Reams Asset Management
  • Hutch Schumaker, president of Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Columbus and the Columbus Capital Foundation
  • Janie Gordon, director of Columbus North High School’s music and choir program
  • John Pickett, former executive director of Indianapolis Opera

June 24, 2013: Committee recommends hiring Lafayette-based theater consultant Jones & Phillips to the Columbus Redevelopment Commission, which enters into contract negotiations with Jones & Phillips.

July 2, 2013: City signs a contract with Jones & Phillips for $95,520 to study the Crump Theatre and its possible future uses. City officials said they expect the feasibility study to be finished in four to six months. Funding for the study will come from tax money garnered from the city’s tax-increment financing districts.

Sept. 25-27, 2013: Workshop in Columbus to create 12 Crump design scenarios including engineers from URS, a Michigan architectural firm, steering committee and city department heads invited to observe, comment and participate.

Oct. 3, 2013: Jones & Phillips and Fred Gore present steering committee with the 12 scenarios followed by a question-and-answer session. Steering committee to review for finals selection of top three to five scenarios to be further vetted.

Dec. 9, 2013: Jones & Phillips and URS present steering committee with design scenarios, preliminary financial data and a preliminary decision is made to take final designs to the public in January 2014.

Dec. 31, 2013: The final event to take place in the building was a New Year’s Eve party.

Jan. 24, 2014: Farber contacts Jones & Phillips to request written draft of Final Crump Feasibility Report for Feb. 14, 2014.

Feb. 24, 2014: Crump Steering Committee meets at City Hall to review and discuss the Jones & Phillips report and send it back to them.

March 19, 2014: Presentation of final Crump Study to Mayor Brown by Van and Linda Phillips at the home of Jayne Farber. The proposal of an “evolved Crump concept” to compliment a 1,200-seat performance hall venue in the former Sears retail store is introduced.

March 20, 2014: Final Jones & Phillips report is emailed to Columbus Redevelopment Commission members and Columbus Capital Foundation board members.

March 24, 2014: Jones & Phillips and Fred Gore, of URS, present final Crump feasibility report to the redevelopment commission and the foundation at a public meeting and includes a question-and-answer session.

April 24, 2014: A second public presentation is given to the community by Jones & Phillips.

May 14, 2014: Crump Steering Committee meets to finalize its recommendations, justifications, goals to present to the redevelopment commission May 19. The recommendation is for a 450-seat Crump renovation, replacement of stage and fly house and expansion into grassy area to the east and into alley to the south for a new loading dock.

May 19, 2014: The committee’s recommendation is presented to the Columbus Redevelopment Commission. The board tables two funding requests from the steering committee, one for $10.8 million to renovate the Crump and another for $20,000 in redevelopment funds to pay a consultant to develop a theater business plan.

June 3, 2014: Columbus City Council balks at promising to spend $10.8 million in tax increment financing district funds to pay for Crump renovation after learning that city would need to purchase the theater in order to renovate it.

July 21, 2014: Danielle McClelland, executive director of the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre in Bloomington, is hired by redevelopment commission for $18,000 to create a five-year business plan for the theater.

Aug. 22, 2014: McClelland submits a draft of the business plan to the redevelopment commission.

Dec. 11, 2014: Public presentation of McClelland’s findings to the city. Then-Mayor Kristen Brown says without a private partner to invest in the theater, it will be impossible for the city to renovate the theater only using public money.

January 2015: The Columbus Capital Foundation Inc. decides to place the theater up for sale after receiving no offers in buying, leasing or running programs at the facility. Since then, no person or group has stepped forward with definitive interest in renovating the Crump.

Pull Quote

“It’s one of those gems that if we allow it to go away, we’re never going to get something like that back.”

— Hutch Schumaker, Columbus Capital Foundation

Pull Quote

“Even now, we still get people who call and want to have an event there and we have to tell them it’s not possible.”

— Tracy Souza, Heritage Fund president and CEO

Pull Quote

“It needs a practical, viable economic plan.”

— Tony Moravec, who has renovated other historic buildings, on saving the Crump

Pull Quote

“I would be willing to get involved if I could see the operational plan and I felt like it had an opportunity for success.”

— Jim Lienhoop, Columbus mayor, on city’s interest in Crump

Historical timeline

Early 1870s: Building constructed by attorney John A. Keith. Contains dining hall, offices for doctors, dentists and lawyers and a small auditorium in the rear.

1879: Purchased by John S. Crump for $6,000. Building later rebuilt and remodeled into 2,000-seat opera house.

Oct. 30, 1889: Crowd defies rain to attend gala opening of opera house, featuring “The Pretty Persian.”

1913: Vaudeville acts begin to get top billing in place of opera. Other acts include traveling minstrel shows, spiritualists and weird science.

May 6, 1914: First movie reels show, starting with a short series of silent films about the Panama Canal.

Jan. 28, 1929: John S. Crump dies at age 76. Theater inherited by children George Holwager and Anne P. Chowning of Madison.

Nov. 9, 1930: New sound system introduced. It proves to be quite an improvement over the talkie system as lip movements of the characters on the screen synchronize perfectly with the sound heard.

Dec. 30, 1931: Theater purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Louis Holwager of Madison.

Feb. 7, 1934: Syndicated Theaters, owned by Trueman Rembusch, signs a 10-year lease to operate theater. Improvement plans include installation of high-fidelity sound, new mezzanine and cry room for children.

July 12, 1934: Interior remodeling complete, includes installation of box-spring seats, upholstered in red leather, with each seat using an aisle light. Orchestra pit removed to increase number of seats on the lower floor to 700.

Nov. 9, 1934: Elsie Harris wins contest to rename the theater, proposing “Von Ritz” for new marquee. The name is never adopted.

Dec. 22, 1934: Equipment allowing deaf and hard-of-hearing to hear sound films is introduced. It’s one of the first such systems in the country.

April 26, 1935: Marquee remodeling begins.

Aug. 9, 1937: New leather and cushion-drop seats replace 600 original wood and iron seats in balcony.

Oct. 13, 1941: Work begins on facelift. Plans call for glass front from sidewalk to roof. Lobby to be enlarged and front exits removed. Restrooms moved from main floor to mezzanine, and circular stairway replaces existing stairs. New marquee to use 45-foot-high sign with 5-foot-high letters.

Oct. 23, 1941: A crew travels to Camp Shelby, Miss., to film Bartholomew County soldiers for a local newsreel.

Feb. 20, 1945: Midnight “owl show” discontinued to comply with defense curfew order.

April 2, 1949: Syndicated Theaters Inc. purchased theater for $150,000. It operates three theaters in Columbus, eight others in Indiana and radio stations in Columbus and Wabash.

March 16, 1962: Theater is purchased by Margrat Inc. of Franklin.

May 1977: Theater undergoes third major renovation in 89 years.

Dec. 17, 1978: Fire in adjacent building causes smoke damage in theater, forcing it to close several days. Historic movie posters, including one for “Gone with the Wind,” are ruined.

April 11, 1987: Owners report declining profits, take bids on demolition. Driftwood Valley Arts Council indicates interest in preserving building.

May 1989: Vernon Jewell agrees to buy theater on contract.

April 13, 1994: Columbus Capital Foundation Inc. buys property on behalf of Historic Columbus Development.

Jan. 31, 1995: Lease expires with Kerasotes Theaters. Movies no longer being shown.

March 1995: “Save the Crump” community fund drive begins. By the end of the year, more than $115,000 is raised to complete basic repairs. Many students and adults donate their time for cleaning and repairs.

December 1995: Theater reopened to begin showing $1 movies.

1996: Crump study by architectural firm of Joyner and Marshall estimated nearly $4 million in renovations would be needed to bring the theater up to current-day standards. In ensuing years, owner Columbus Capital Foundation oversaw more than $300,000 in renovations — including roof repair, facade restoration and other basic maintenance.

March 1999: New roof paid for with $22,000 matching grant from Historic Indiana Landmarks.

January 2000: $100,000 matching grant from the state approved to restore the facade and marquee.

April 2002: Announcement made that the theater would be used as a community auditorium, including use for concerts, movies, lectures and group meetings.

Sept. 23, 2008: John Mellencamp performs a concert in the theater, recorded for Arts & Entertainment Biography channel.

2013: Arts District Coalition looking at programming and funding options if theater would be renovated.

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.