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Advocates say reviving the Madison Theater is about a lot more than historic preservation

Plans to revive the moribund Madison Theatre in downtown Peoria are still moving forward a little more than two years after a not-for-profit took ownership of the landmark.

The 1,600-seat theater designed by Peoria architect Frederick J. Klein opened in 1920, and closed most recently in 2003. It's the last of Peoria's fully-intact vintage theaters, but it's seen better days.

Roof leaks, extended vacancy, and a 2016 arson fire all caused their fair share of damages to the theater.

Cody Geibelhausen of the 501(c)(3) Madison Preservation Association prefers to describe their work as a historical renovation, rather than a restoration.

"It's gonna look and feel every bit as grand as it would have on opening day in 1920. But aside from that, just about everything's gonna be brand new," he said. That includes new electrical wiring and plumbing, and wider theater seats with better angles.

Cleveland, Ohio's DLR Group has partnered with local architectural firm Farnsworth Group to evaluate the building's current state and map out a plan.

"There's a lot of experts in every realm of historic renovation or redevelopment of this scale that are out there, and many of them are on board in every facet of the project," Geibelhausen said. "So, we're not reinventing any wheels here. It's just Peoria's time to to get the ball rolling on it."

Geibelhausen said they're fortunate in that about 70% to 80% of the Madison's elaborate paint and plaster work is still intact. That means restoration will be possible even with a paucity of documentation between the theater's 1920 opening date and the 1980s, when it began to host live performances.

Mark Misselhorn is part of the Madison Preservation Association. He said the theater still has an important role to play in the city's downtown.

"We're not just talking about historic preservation or restoration. But it's really about our future. And it's about our community pride," Misselhorn said. "It's going to take a lot of hands; it's going to take time. But we're sort of leading the charge because we recognize how important this is for the whole city."

The project includes not only the theater itself, but also the attached two-story Main Street commercial frontage. Misselhorn said that includes space for a full-service restaurant, large bar, a corner bodega, and possibly a second, smaller pub. Two25 Restaurant already plans to move into the Madison, Geibelhausen added.

The plan is to get the Main Street commercial locations opened up first, followed by the theater.

The Coronado Theatre in Rockford is the Madison's sister. Both buildings were designed by Klein, the Peoria architect. The Coronado underwent its own $18.5 million restoration around the turn of the 21st century. Misselhorn said the Coronado had more than 100,000 ticketed visitors in 2019, generating more than $6 million in overall economic impact.

The total cost of the Madison project is likely to run over $30 million. Misselhorn said about 40% to 45% will be covered or reimbursed through historic tax credits. New market tax credits and grants also are expected to fund a portion of the costs. That leaves around $10 million to be picked up through local philanthropic giving.

"We're poised for a major capital campaign to really help start making this happen," he said.

The Sept. 30 "Blockbuster Bash for the Madison" is one such fundraiser. The all-ages festival runs from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. It includes live music and performances, a youth talent showcase, guided tours of the Madison Theatre, and a mural unveiling. A $20 minimum contribution to the association is requested, with all proceeds going toward the restoration project.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.