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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Turning the Corner

 On an unusually warm day in late January, stepping into the Alhambra Theatre located in Haynie’s Corner Arts District is akin to stepping into an air-conditioned hall.

“It’s about 20 degrees cooler,” warns Ken Haynie III, vice president of sales at F.C. Tucker Emge Realtors, as he opens the main lobby doors.

It’s not an exaggeration — with no heating or air conditioning in the building, the space of the Alhambra offers a chill to those who walk in. The building also lacks bathrooms and plumbing.

Stripped to its bare bones, the interior of the theater now shows only glimpses from its past life. Rusted light scones cling to the brick walls in the main room. End caps from theater seats peak out from a small closet space in the lobby. Support beams hover exposed in the ceiling. The stage lingers in pieces.

It is a heavy contrast compared to the outside façade of the building, which, through various channels, has underwent heavy restoration that started in 2003 and was completed in 2013.

“There’s not a ton left that’s from the actual theater or of historical significance,” says Haynie.

He and F.C. Tucker Commercial manager Aaron Kendall purchased the historic theater under the name Alhambra LLC in December 2017 from the Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana. Situated at the corner of Parrett and Adams streets in Downtown Evansville, the former movie house has been a landmark of the city since the early 1900s, when neighborhood theaters ruled urban areas throughout the U.S. Before the partners signed on the dotted line, they did not shy away from taking a close look at the 115-year-old structure.

“We had several different inspectors walk through before we closed on it,” says Kendall.

“We went in eyes wide open with it,” adds Haynie. “We knew what we were getting into. We know what we’ve got. We know what it needs.”
The Alhambra offers just over 4,000 square feet of space, with the main lobby and theater downstairs and a few equally bare office spaces upstairs.

“The building right now is exactly how it was when we purchased it,” says Haynie as he stands in the doorway between the theater and main lobby. He then laughs, “And that’s a good thing and a bad thing.”

But why purchase an empty theater? It’s a question that has a rather simple answer for Haynie and Kendall. They wanted to create a space where people could gather in the arts district.

As management team members at F.C. Tucker, the duo often would be a part of conversations on where to host events for fellow agents. In the past, members had gathered at Mesker Park Zoo, gone bowling, and visited many other spaces in the city, but Haynie says they always are on the look out for something different.

“When we found out about this space, Aaron and I kind of pictured our group here. I think that was the first thing — seeing it as a place that had a good-sized space,” he says. “It is something different, something fun. Something that has some character and a draw. Somewhere people want to be.”

Character is a trait the Alhambra Theatre has in spades. Built in the spring of 1913, the exterior of the building displays a unique Moorish Revival-style design, imagined by Frank J. Schlotter. In its heyday as a movie theater, the Alhambra was the first in Evansville to tout sound and air conditioning. However, as the case with many neighborhood playhouses, the theater shuttered its doors in 1956, and has yet to find a new purpose since.

Using the building for event space is far from a new concept, but Haynie says he and Kendall now realize the possibilities for the Alhambra are quite literally endless.

“We thought the highest and best use was an event space. I’m not sure that will end up being the case,” he says. “I firmly believe we could put a dozen things in here that are going to be a success. I have no doubts.”

Being surrounded by thriving businesses in the arts district will be a big help, Haynie points out. People already traffic the streets and sidewalks, making their way to local restaurants and bars or browsing the galleries during First Friday events. The established neighborhood and support from the community already have shown the partners success will definitely come, no matter the end result.

“One thing that has stood out to me through this whole process is that people just want to see it open,” says Kendall. “It’s been closed since 1956; it’s been closed longer than it’s been open. But what marks in my mind is that people keep saying they want it open again.”

The task ahead is daunting, but both men are committed. In the first few months since purchasing the theater, both say they feel more confident now than when they took over ownership in December.

“We’re working from two different angles,” says Kendall. “We’re not going to move forward with anything until we have the right end product in mind. But at the same time we need to be working on layout.”

“Nothing has scared us off so far,” says Haynie. “I keep telling people it’s a blank canvas.”

One surprise that did come with the purchase of the Alhambra Theatre had nothing to do with the status of the structure, but rather the stories attached with it. Haynie and Kendall have become more than property owners; they are now unofficial historians.

From the moment the purchase information was made public, the duo unknowingly took up the monikers of story keepers. It doesn’t matter where or when, Haynie says, people will come up to them now to share their stories of the Alhambra.

“People will stop us and say, ‘You guys bought the Alhambra? Well, I’ve got a story,’” says Haynie. “There’s been 100 times that someone has come up and mentioned a memory or something that stood with them about their experience with the theater, which is fun.”

From phone calls and emails to hand-written letters, the response Haynie and Kendall have received from the city has been tremendous. Haynie has saved every note, he says, which has provided them even more encouragement for the project.

“There’s so much to do and that people are experiencing down here. I look forward to being to a part of that and having the theater be a part of that again,” says Haynie.

For more information about the Alhambra Theatre, call Ken Haynie at 812-760-4047.

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