A new chapter in the community’s generations-long romance with the aging Crump Theatre could soon be opened as officials say they are inching closer to reopening the 134-year-old icon of Columbus’ landscape to the public after being closed for nearly a decade due to safety hazards involving fire dangers and other concerns.
Officials at the Columbus Capital Foundation, which owns the theater, said they applied for an arts and entertainment permit for the Crump earlier this month, which would allow the theater to reopen to the public and hold live entertainment events for the first time since closing its doors in 2014.
The permit would be issued by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security only if the theater gets passing marks during inspections by the Columbus Fire Department, Bartholomew County Code Enforcement and the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s Office.
The Columbus Fire Department, for its part, has not performed a “true fire inspection” on the Crump since 2013 “because, in essence, they’ve claimed that they’re closed to the public,” said CFD Fire Inspector Troy Todd.
But officials who have been working with contractors and a team of volunteers for years to get the aging theater in shape to be re-opened to the public say they believe they will complete the final repairs needed to secure the license by the end of this coming week, with a target date for reopening potentially as early as mid-August.
The last repairs officials believe they will need to make before undergoing the inspections involves truss repairs in the stage area. Work on those repairs had been delayed for over a year as officials waited for materials to arrive and dealt with 14-foot-tall beehive that an estimated 100,000 honeybees were calling home, officials said.
The honeybees were relocated to a beekeeper’s property, officials said.
“All of those (repairs) will be done by mid-next week,” said Jessica Schnepp, project manager for the Crump Threatre, last week.
After the truss repairs are complete, a structural engineer will assess the building before the inspections take place, Schnepp said.
The Crump has long seduced many local residents with its historic charms.
The original building that now houses the theater was built in the 1870s with exterior brick masonry walls and wood structural framing.
In 1889, the Crump Theatre was constructed, initially serving as a 2,000-seat opera house, opening with a performance of “The Pretty Persian.”
In the 1920s, the opera house was renovated into a movie theater, and the wood balcony, as well as the projection room, lounge, bathrooms and main lobby, were reconstructed with reinforced concrete.
By the late 1990s, water had caused significant deterioration of the some of the wooden roof trusses, though the theater would remain open until 2014.
The final public even was a New Year’s Eve party held before the theater closed in January 2014.
Over the decades, the theater has held numerous events, including a John Mellencamp concert in 2008 that was recorded for the Arts and Entertainment Biography channel.
The theater was named to Indiana Landmarks 10 Most Endangered Structures list in 2019.
Though the Crump has been closed to the public, some small private events have been held there, including “ghost hunting” events, officials said.
However, capacity had been restricted to fewer than 50 people for those events, Todd said.
Multiple studies on the Crump and what its future could look like have been conducted over roughly the past decade, including some that have given different assessments and recommendations.
In study results released in March 2014, architectural firm Jones & Phillips detailed multiple safety hazards throughout the theater, The Republic reported at the time. The firm gave options to renovate the theater or perhaps tear it down and start over.
Architect Van Phillips, of Jones & Phillips, compared the Crump to a giant fireplace, much like the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago that caught fire in 1903, killing 602 people, including 212 children.
A fire broke out on stage and smoke filled the theater while hundreds of people fought each other while racing toward nearby exits. Most of the deaths were from asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation.
The Crump’s stage is just like the Iroquois’ stage, with no ventilation and no fire curtain, Phillips said in 2014.
The study stated that the Crump lacks a fire sprinkler system and functioning fire escapes. Its mechanical room also was deemed unsafe for people due to water damage, and its stage floor did not meet current structural codes.
Former Columbus Fire Chief Dave Allmon said in 2014 that he “would be totally against” reopening the Crump unless the issues were fixed, according to previous coverage in The Republic.
At the time, officials said they felt that the consultants misinterpreted the study’s findings.
In 2020, the Columbus Capital Foundation brought in another firm, ARSEE Engineers, to conduct a “critical review” of a third report that “made claims the building was unsafe, eventually leading to its closure.”
ARSEE Engineers evaluated the structural integrity of the theater and what it would take to stabilize it and make it safe so it could be re-opened. They reached a different conclusion than Jones & Phillips, finding that the Crump is in “generally good condition and well worth saving.”
The first stated in the 2020 report that “the building was actually constructed such that it met or exceeded good design practices of the day and with the exception of the roof is performing quite well. We are confident it can be saved and re-opened.”
However, the firm said it found several issues that would need to be fixed before the theater could be reopened, including “significant deterioration of the wood roof structure,” though some of the roof trusses supporting the roof could not be observed due to ductwork that reportedly is “covered with asbestos,” the report states.
Steel fire escapes also would need to be reconstructed if the theater’s balcony is to be reopened to the public. However, officials said they do not have plans to reopen the balcony to the public at this point.
ARSEE Engineers also recommended making repairs to the exterior masonry to “enhance the performance of the building” but those improvements, at least in theory, “could be delayed a year or two.”
Beyond that, “many of the deficiencies” outlined in previous assessments involved the building not being up to current code standards even though “the building is grandfathered and does not have to meet such requirements,” the report states.
In 2014, The Republic reported that the Crump was operating under the 1941 building code because that was the year when the theater underwent its last major renovation.
At least as of 2014, Indiana law had been allowing the Crump to follow the same standards as in 1941, when FDR was still in the White House.
Todd, the current fire inspector, said that is likely still be the case.
“Before they open to the public, they will have us go through and do an inspection,” Todd said. “…But unless it is something critical, we won’t keep them from opening.”
Bartholomew County Code Enforcement also will inspect the building and the electrical system, officials said.
Currently, the Columbus Capital Foundation pays for liability insurance on the theater.
Hutch Schumaker, president of the Columbus Capital Foundation, attributed the different recommendations in the Jones & Phillips study and the ARSEE Engineers report largely to a “miscommunication” over expectations for the use of the theater.
“The issue with the entire Jones & Phillips study was, I think, there was a miscommunication in that the community’s expectation and Jones & Phillips sort of best-case scenario were two totally different things,” Schumaker said. “I think Jones & Phillips … was so overdone in my estimation, it had lost the intention of being a community space. They were talking about bringing in national acts. …When ARSEE looked at it, they were taking a more realistic look at what the community wants this to be and what it can be.”
While it is impossible to say what the results of the inspections will be, officials say they are optimistic that they will get the green light to reopen the Crump.
“We started with grassroots and building it up to show that it was possible (to reopen),” Schnepp said. “So getting our entertainment permit (would be) a very big deal to all of us who have been working on it.”
“We’re just excited to share it with the public,” she added.
File photo | The Republic A portion of The Crump Theatre’s interior will be part of the Open Door Tour Saturday.