Mark Bennett: Upcoming conventions could give the Hippodrome a 21st century niche | Indiana News
The sounds of laughter, tapping and clapping emerged from the crowds inside the Hippodrome theater a century ago.
Similar reactions could once again fill the historic building in downtown Terre Haute. At least that is the hope of its current owners and a curator.
The Indianapolis-based racetrack owners have listed the 107-year-old structure at 727 Ohio Street for sale. Its real estate listing touts the Hippodrome’s proximity to the new downtown convention center — located a block north of the theater on Wabash Avenue — as well as multiple parking lots, the Hulman Center and the Indiana campus. State University. Construction of the convention center is expected to be completed by April.
It’s possible that a theater built for early 20th-century vaudeville shows will find a niche in a downtown neighborhood, once convention-goers start coming to town.
The racetrack could serve as a venue for entertainment activities that appeal to conventioneers, beyond events inside the convention center itself, said Tommy Kleckner, director of Indiana Landmarks’ western regional office. Another landmark, the 1922 Indiana Theater, is a block west of the racetrack and has the same potential, Kleckner said.
“The Hippodrome and the Indiana Theater can provide that gathering space, combined with the convention center,” Kleckner speculated Wednesday.
Renowned Austrian theater architect John Eberson designed both buildings, and both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 28,064-square-foot racetrack opened in 1915, designed by Eberson in a more traditional theater style common in Europe, Kleckner said. Seven years later, the Indiana Theater opened with a more ornate look covering 31,646 square feet, one of the earliest examples of Eberson’s “atmospheric” theatrical designs. Eberson designed nearly 100 such theaters in the United States and Canada.
The 100th anniversary of the opening of the Indiana Theater on January 28, 1922 is just weeks away. Terre Haute businessman and philanthropist Greg Gibson bought the theater in August for $212,599 “as an opportunity to keep this historic building in the hands of someone in line with the best interests of the community. “, did he declare. Gibson bought Indiana to protect it and had made no plans for its use. Still, the positive changes downtown were clearly on his mind.
“Downtown continues to grow and develop, and it’s becoming increasingly important to continue that progress by ensuring our buildings and businesses align with the city’s tourism initiatives,” said Gibson. in August. “While I don’t have any immediate plans for the theater, I hope to make sure he can complement those efforts.”
As for the Hippodrome, it is owned by Ryan and Ashley Petty of Indianapolis. They purchased the property in January 2020 from the Hippodrome’s longtime occupants, the Terre Haute Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, for $100,000, according to the state’s Indiana Gateway database. Two years later, the owners — officially Hippodrome LLC — have the theater on the market, they confirmed via email last week. The property listing describes the Hippodrome as a “sports and entertainment building”, usable as is or with “adaptive reuse”.
It caught the eye, Ashley Petty said.
“We have had considerable interest in the Hippodrome and are really trying to find the right buyer to preserve the history and continue the growth and redevelopment of downtown Terre Haute,” Ashley Petty said in an email to Tribune-Star. She did not say what changes have been made to the Hippodrome since the couple bought it two years ago, or why it was put up for sale, with a list price of $500,000.
Kleckner hopes a new owner will use the Hippodrome as a performance venue in an intimate setting.
“I hope that whatever it is used for, it retains that [intimate] experience,” Kleckner said.
The Scottish Rite organization used the lower hall and the 625-seat stage of the racecourse for meetings, theatrical performances, officers’ facilities and memorial services for members from 1956 to 2020. Originally, the theater had 1,441 seats as the Hauteans packed it for vaudeville variety shows from 1915 to 1929. After sitting idle for a year, the racetrack reopened to house the Earth Community Theater Organization Haute, a race that spanned much of the 1930s and 1940s, according to Vigo County historian Mike McCormick. It then served as a cinema hall as the Wabash Theatre, before the six-decade ownership of the Scottish Rite began.
The Main Street exhibit on the first floor of the Vigo County Historical Museum features relics from the Hippodrome’s golden age – a ticket machine, theater seats and a projector. Some other items are in storage, museum curator Suzy Quick said Wednesday.
These memories toast a building and stage once graced by legendary performers of a bygone era like Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Al Jolson and Bob Hope. The possibility that the Hippodrome could find a purpose alongside new downtown structures in the 2020s – a century after its heyday in the “roaring” 1920s – is intriguing. Federal and state grants could help new homeowners fund renovations, Kleckner said.
“I think it really has the potential to improve the experience for these conventioneers,” Kleckner said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]