Englert Theater undergoes restoration while maintaining its historic character

With the funds from the Strengthen, Grow, Evolve Capital Campaign in collaboration with FilmScene, Iowa City’s historic theater is undergoing restorations through the end of summer and into the fall.

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Tate Hildyard

The Englert Theater is seen closed on Wednesday, March 18th, 2020. The spread of coronavirus in Johnson county has been named a public health emergency. (Tate Hildyard/The Daily Iowan.)

Megan Conroy, Arts Reporter


For pedestrians on Washington Street, the absence of Englert Theater’s marquee — the vintage sign that protrudes at the front of the building and spells out the theater’s name — is the most noticeable part of the theater’s current reconstruction.

The Englert Theater has played a role in bringing artists from around the world to Iowa City since its doors opened in 1912. The venue began as a movie theater but progressed into putting on live shows like concerts and comedy sets. Now, the theater is a staple of the arts community in Iowa City.

On May 28, the Englert began the process of construction and restoration of the theater. In addition to restoring the marquee, the projects range from patrons’ comments about drinking fountains to the gallery space and inside the theater itself, according to OPN architect Josh Moe, whose firm was hired to assess and restore aspects of the theater that need restoration.

The funding for the Englert’s construction projects came from the Strengthen, Grow, Evolve Capital Campaign partnership with FilmScene from April of 2019, said FilmScene’s Interim Executive Director & CoFounder Andrew Sherburne. The campaign also provided the funding to open FilmScene’s new building at The Chauncey in September 2019.

“We’re thrilled to see The Englert Theatre begin their preservation and modernization efforts in earnest,” Sherburne said in an email to The Daily Iowan. “We still have programmatic and community engagement goals for this campaign. We’re working hard to achieve those aspirations and appreciate the contributions of our community.”

A large portion of the restoration process of the theater is the Englert marquee. While the sign has seen about four or five different iterations of itself, it has never been restored before, Englert’s Marketing Director John Schickedanz said.

On June 16, the marquee was shipped to Ohio to be refurbished to its 1958 glamour — when the sign first graced Iowa City with its presence at the Englert. 

“We knew it was something we wanted to bring back to its prior glory,” he said. “Everything that was removed will be revitalized. The original paint is being tested to be able to color match to repair or replace some of the neon that was on the sign.”

The architect firm OPN became involved with the Englert in 2017 to assess what kinds of refurbishing the building would need.

“When OPN first got involved, there was a spreadsheet full of stuff [ranging] from deferred maintenance to complaints from the general public, to the stage wall falling in some spots,” Moe said. “We then went through the multi-year process of what were the most critical needs. The projects going on right now are the highest priority stuff.”

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The high-priority projects include the marquee but are also inclusive to parts of the building itself. The gallery space is to be expanded to accommodate more theatergoers, or even larger events and conferences. On the front of the building, the windows of the theater are covered in plastic as they are rehabilitated. When they are finished, the original wood from the windows will remain there. However, the windows will fit tightly and keep the weather out, Moe explained.

Another one of the highest priorities is the back wall of the stage. In 1926, a fire nearly burned the Englert Theater to the ground. While firemen controlled the blaze that tore through the roof, the stage wall still has damage from the disaster.

Moe said that the bricks seemed as though they were moved from a furnace to being submerged in water after the fire.

“The bricks were starting to fall off the wall. Not only does that brick wall hold up the roof, but there are actors, stage crews, bands, on that stage, and chunks of masonry were falling,” he said.

Before now, the wall had only been partially fixed when a few bricks needed patching and repair. The goal of fixing the wall is so the safety of performers is improved for many years to come.

“Everything that’s being done is done with a lot of care to make sure the historic character of the building is retained,” Moe said. “We’re making sure everything we’re doing is in line with historic preservation. The [projects] are not alterations, they are improvements.”

The projects are aimed to be completed in the fall, but with COVID-19, construction has been delayed, especially with the marquee. The restoration of the marquee was put on pause for a few months due to the pandemic, causing the workflow to get backlogged. While the sign was sent to Ohio on June 16, it will have to wait until the restorers can finish previous projects first.

If the Englert decides to reopen in the fall with its refurbished details, the marquee that the Iowa City community knows and loves — depending on restoration time — could potentially be absent for a little longer than anticipated.

“We’re hoping that by the time it’s back on, it will look like it did in the 50s,” Schickedanz said. “With brand new paint and all the working lights, it’ll really be something to see once it’s done.”

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