The historic Embassy Theatre in Lewistown is one of the community’s most beloved and iconic structures. It is being rehabilitated with the help of a Keystone Historic Preservation Grant.
Brief History of the Embassy
Built in 1927, it was the cultural peak of entertainment for many decades, but suffered to television and other competition, as did most other downtown theaters of the day.
Today, it is the last remaining historic theater in the county. Remarkably, it remains intact, with almost all of its original architectural elements still in place. Likewise, the building is in good shape structurally, but does need major upgrades to make it safe and usable for modern audiences.
The Embassy was designed by English architect Albert Douglas Hill (1905-1942), of the firm of Hodgens and Hill of Philadelphia. Its conservative classical design reflects Hill’s English roots. The Embassy was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1998 (Key #097915), for its local significance, and was the first nomination to recognize Hill’s theater work in Pennsylvania.
After closing in 1981, it sat idle for a decade, while the original owner Harold D. Cohen tried to sell it. He refused many offers, hoping to find someone who would restore it rather than tear it down. Harold died in 1989, and two years later, his daughters put it up for auction.
A local group of citizens formed, called the Friends of the Embassy Theatre, and successfully purchased the building. Since that time, this group of all volunteers have endeavored to return the building to its original beauty and status in the community. At the time, representatives from PHMC examined the building, and referred to it as a “mini-gem worthy of preservation.”
It has been a long process.
In the beginning, the group had little direction on how to accomplish this Herculean task.
Eventually, several studies of the downtown recognized that the Embassy can be a vibrant part of a revitalized downtown. This is becoming even more important, as Lewistown has continued to lose much of its historic fabric in the downtown. Returning the Embassy would be a key to anchor the town’s history in a tangible way.
Through this time, the Friends worked to restore the front façade, including an accurate replica of the original marquee of 1,000 lights in 2004. The building was secured and weather-sealed in a project in 2013.
The following year, the Friends hired one of the top historic theatre architect firms, Westlake Reed Leskosky, to complete a concept plan for the theatre. All of these projects were funded in part with grants from PHMC’s Keystone Historic Preservation Grant Program. Each was a critical step to build towards the eventual reopening of the Embassy.
From this, the organization sought to build partnerships with other downtown groups.
From its beginning in the early 2000s, Downtown Lewistown, Inc. was a partner in the project. In 2018, it took on a greater role in bringing the project to completion. The first priority was to revitalize the Friends by brings new members onto the board.
There is a renaissance taking place in Lewistown, as younger entrepreneurs are establishing new businesses, and are interested in bringing the downtown back to life. Several of them have joined the board of the Friends.
With their assistance, we hired a new architect team, AlbertinVernon Architect LLC, who are experts in historic properties.
Feasibility Study Guides Rehabilitation
Over the winter of 2018-2019, the architects completed a feasibility study.
In this study, it was felt that the project would have greater success by starting to rehabilitate only a portion of the theatre, to get it open and operational.
The plan also includes a new line of thinking on historic preservation, “restoring in place.” This method recognizes the history of the building throughout its life, and preserves original architectural elements with ones added or changed over the years, to new construction, with each side by side and distinguishable. Though the feasibility study itself didn’t use any PHMC funds, they were consulted on several aspects of the study.
The feasibility study proposed a plan to rehabilitate only a portion of the theatre, and is known as the “Phase 1 plan.” This study was used to secure another PHMC Keystone Historic Preservation Planning Grant in 2019, to fund the construction documents, which are now complete. Important to the project is that this phase is within budgetary reach of the organization.
This plan will rehabilitate a section of the main floor under the balcony, and the mezzanine level, for use. When Phase 1 is completed, the theatre will finally be able to open its doors within a portion of the building. We look forward to our continued relationship with PHMC to bring this gem fully back to life.
April is National Volunteer Month! The PA SHPO wants to THANK the many volunteers out there working hard to save historic sites throughout the Commonwealth. We know that successful projects like the Embassy Theater only happen when dedicated volunteers make them happen.
Today’s guest author is Paul T. Fagley, President, Friends of the Embassy Theatre, Inc. Paul also authored the Embassy’s National Register nomination in 1998, which you can read here.