TUSCUMBIA — Volunteers who have formed a nonprofit to acquire and restore the former Bijou Theatre building on Main Street are concerned the structure may go to a private investor before they’ve had a chance to raise the $40,000 to buy it.
Howard Hopwood, who with several other volunteers formed Tuscumbian Art Properties, said at least two “showings” appear to have taken place at the site in recent weeks.
He said his group is still working on getting pledges up to $40,000 to buy and stabilize the building before work can begin on restoration.
Hopwood said the structure is architecturally significant and he would hate to see it destroyed.
“The Bijou building sits in the center of two blocks of buildings in Tuscumbia that have existed for more than 100 years,” Hopwood said. “Someone who looked down the west side of South Main in 1919 would still be able to recognize that row of buildings in 2019.”
The Bijou Theatre opened Sept. 30, 1919, and films were shown each day except Sundays. Though it seated 600 people, it couldn’t survive when a competing, larger movie house, The Strand, opened a block up Main Street.
The last film shown at the Bijou was April 13, 1920, according to historical details collected by the group, which is registered as Tuscumbian Art Properties, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with an office at 301 N. Dickson St.
The group is almost at the halfway mark in raising the initial $40,000, Hopwood said.
After it closed as a movie house, the ground floor of the building underwent a metamorphosis into a pool hall that operated until after World War II. A clothing store later occupied the ground floor.
Different tenants brought changes to the building’s original architecture. When it was built, the ceilings were about 25 feet tall and there was a sloping floor, which is usual, even now, in buildings that house theaters.
Subsequent tenants added a flat wood floor that rested on the original concrete sloped auditorium floor. False ceiling supports were added to lower the ceiling height, and walls were added over the original. Decorative elements on the second-floor exterior were removed and the brick was painted.
However, Hopwood said there still are many original details intact.
“The interior contains a large amount of original detail and materials,” Hopwood said. “This will allow accurate restoration of the Bijou. A patron in the 21st century will be able to see and experience a 1919 design that was executed 100 years ago. At the same time, we will be able to incorporate 21st century advances to the building systems and technologies.”
The group, with permission from the owner, peeled back some of the false walls to find many of the decorative elements still there. Some of the plaster that was scored to resemble a subway tile pattern can be seen, as can some of the original tin ceiling tiles.
On the second floor, remnants of the wainscoting are visible. Original tiles are intact at the building’s entrance, and the group even found a piece of the original pump organ that was used during the theater’s heyday.
They hope to open a community theater in the structure that would go beyond the building’s original purpose.
“A community theater is meant to provide a space where many groups can use it for a variety of events,” Hopwood said. “Examples include free events like movies and plays, ticketed engagements for concerts, and private rentals such as weddings or family reunions. The Bijou will be set up to handle them all.
“By keeping operating costs low, usage fees can be kept within a reasonable range,” he said. “The fact that this will all happen in a historically significant theater is the icing on the cake.”
The proposed project has been divided into four phases. Phase one includes the $40,000 purchase, $1,000 for insurance, $8,000 for structural issues and $1,000 for temporary electricity, which will be needed during restoration.
Phase two is projected to cost $68,000. The expenses include architectural plans, roof and wall repairs, overhead lighting and stage rigging, building the front bulkhead, removing the concrete overlay from the lobby floor, removing paint from the brick exterior, removing debris, and storing any historical items found at the site.
The sewer and street drain also would be assessed and the foundation inspected. Plaster would be sealed to protect it from the elements.
Phase three is projected to cost $410,000. It includes work that will bring the building back to its former beauty, including structural repairs, tiling replacement and repairs, basement repairs, mechanical and equipment repairs, bringing the sloped floor back, adding an elevated stage, and adding dressing rooms and restrooms.
The expenses for phase four are for the building’s opening and a two-year operation budget.
Members of the nonprofit group have already searched out some grant opportunities that would go toward restoration.
Hopwood said by being “oriented for use by everyone in the community, an ever-changing group of patrons will be coming to the Bijou. That will provide more exposure for Tuscumbia’s retail businesses and restaurants.”
He said as a nonprofit, the group is not about making money.
“The Bijou will be a community service, a cultural asset and a place for history to remain relevant,” he said. “In addition to providing a space for events, it will also be a training ground. It will be a place to preserve the history of the theaters of the area, as well as films relevant to the Shoals.”
Ninon Parker, president of the Colbert County Historical Landmarks Foundation, agreed the building is important.
“It’s a real gem in a town when you have a movie theater that is still intact and still standing on Main Street,” Parker said. “It is one of the oldest silent movie theaters in the state, and certainly it is worth preserving.
“It is part of our streetscape and part of our history, and fully restored it can provide a beautiful venue for whatever use is established. It would be a real asset to our downtown,” she said.
Hopwood said he realizes the building is in a prime downtown location and is attractive to a for-profit investor. He said its loss would end the possibility of having an actively used historical theatrical space in Tuscumbia.
“While Florence has the Shoals and Sheffield has the Ritz, without the Bijou, Tuscumbia would have nothing,” he said. “With such an opportunity right there for the taking, what a tragedy it will be to let it slip by unclaimed.”