New life for an old theater

Stepping inside the long-forgotten auditorium, I could easily imagine the many Christmas shows, choral concerts and plays that once took the stage there -- and the thousands of Cathedral and Sacred Heart elementary and high school students who ga...

Stepping inside the long-forgotten auditorium, I could easily imagine the many Christmas shows, choral concerts and plays that once took the stage there -- and the thousands of Cathedral and Sacred Heart elementary and high school students who gathered long ago for assemblies and other school activities.

But when Erik Torch wanders through this "wonderful gem in the middle of the city," as he calls it, he doesn't see the past. Or doesn't dwell on it. He sees a future. He sees a

Duluth arts organization -- a theater group, perhaps -- working in partnership with his Damiano Center to first refurbish the more than 12,000-square-feet of potential performance space, and second to bring musicals, kids concerts and other shows to the space's 103-year-old wooden stage. He envisions the auditorium's balcony, still filled with seats, welcoming new audiences a floor above his Central Hillside office.

As lofty as his vision may sound, it actually may not be far from becoming reality. After months of searching, "we're sort of, kind of talking with an organization right now," the Damiano Center executive director said this week. "They've been looking for space. The talks have been encouraging." But because the talks also are "very much in the beginning stages," Torch declined to identify the arts group or provide specifics.

New life for the old auditorium would be remarkable, considering it hasn't seen an audience or gathering in 40 years, not since 1967. That's when the building, constructed in 1904 as Sacred Heart Elementary, closed. Cathedral High School was on the other side of Second Avenue West.


The Damiano Center moved in in 1984 with its clothing exchange, soup kitchen, Kids' Cafe and other worthy programs that help Duluthians down on their luck get back on their feet. Damiano's offices were on the second floor. At either end of a long hallway, the wide, wooden staircases that led up to the auditorium were walled off. Simple metal doors on the new walls offered not even a hint of the beauty hidden away.

"Most people don't even realize it's up there," Torch said of the old auditorium. He worked for Damiano a year before he learned it existed. "We don't really have use for it, and we really don't have the resources to renovate it on our own," he said.

Not that the Damiano Center hasn't been pouring big bucks into keeping up its historic home. The nonprofit invested more than $1 million over the past eight years to restore the building's masonry, to install new windows, to put in a modern heating system and to rebuild the bathrooms. About $250,000 is budgeted this year to rebuild the parking lot and retaining wall outside.

And it isn't like ideas haven't been tossed around for years to use the old auditorium: housing, housing for homeless veterans, offices for mental health services, an incubator to help new nonprofits get started and so on.

"None of the ideas ever really took off," Torch said, "and really, it would be sad to see the space converted into anything but its original use. Ideally, we want to see it preserved and restored to its original integrity."

Few people would like that more than Sister Timothy Kirby, a drama and music teacher at Cathedral High School from 1955 to 1962. She used the auditorium extensively.

"Lots of things went on here. This was where we always did our plays and concerts. It's been a long time since I've been up here," Kirby said this week, showing me around the giant hall. "I spent a lot of hours here. Lots of memories, good memories."

The memories include the world premiere of a locally written play, a mystery set in a convent; the January 1956 fire that seriously damaged the auditorium and school; and, of course, Herman the bat. He always came out during rehearsals, never during a performance, Kirby said.


Middle school grades shared space on the third floor with the auditorium, she said. Six classrooms and three bathrooms are now filled with wooden desks and unwanted computers as Damiano has taken to using its upper floor as a "huge attic," as Torch said. Large, arching windows continue to capture breathtaking views of Lake Superior and Duluth's downtown skyline.

"It's such a special space," Kirby said. "Using the auditorium again as an auditorium, that'd be one of the best things you could do."

The restoration would probably cost a "couple million" dollars, Torch said. In addition to extensive cleaning and painting, the building's heating system would need to be extended and an elevator installed.

"We are optimistic," Torch said. "If a partner comes through and is a good fit, the money will come."

Then, instead of being long-forgotten, the old auditorium would be rediscovered.

Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune's deputy editorial page editor. He can be reached at 723-5316 or .

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