The Woodward Development Corporation (WDC), a 501(c)(3) organization, was organized in 1996 for the purpose of purchasing and managing the Woodward Opera House facilities. Its large volunteer base is led by a board of trustees made up of leaders from the county’s business, social-service, arts, and civic sectors.
After its founding the WDC purchased what may be the oldest unaltered theater block in the country: the Woodward Opera House, part of the upper floors of 101–111 South Main Street in Mount Vernon, Ohio. This venue once hosted the finest entertainers of its day, including stage legends Minnie Maddern Fiske and Frank Currier, comic monologist Bob Burdette, and minstrel man Dan Emmett. Then-Senator William McKinley spoke on its stage prior to his 1896 presidential bid. Touring lecturers and theatrical and vaudeville companies appeared there an average of three evenings a week from the 1850s into the early 20th century. Parts of the buildings also saw service as a military drill hall, party center, roller-skating parlor, basketball court, and indoor horseshoe pitch. Later owners closed off the upper floors, choosing to keep in good repair only the spaces used by office and retail tenants. While still structurally sound, the buildings by 1998 were in disrepair due to water leakage, a lack of heat in winter, and the simple fact of having stood unused for decades.
The Woodward Development Corporation sees the renovation of this landmark theater block as the keystone to a downtown renaissance.The WDC sees the renovation of this landmark theater block as the keystone to a downtown renaissance. Small-town business districts have a tendency to take on the appearance of “ghost towns” after 5:00 p.m. However, once the Woodward is made safe and accessible and restored to its former elegance, it will become an evening destination for visitors from across Knox County and well beyond. The Woodward’s presence will benefit not only the city’s arts and cultural agencies, but also the local restaurants, lounges, and retail businesses that audience members patronize before and after performances. Its 500-seat auditorium will permit the booking of professional touring companies and entertainers of national reputation and will make Mount Vernon a true destination for fans of the performing arts.
Since taking possession of the Woodward Block, the WDC and its volunteers have completed optimal improvements, such as: cleared and cleaned its interior, replaced the roof, arranged for inspection of the infrastructure, rehabilitated and re-tenanted the ground-floor retail units, restored the exterior masonry, rehabilitated the wood windows, and completed a myriad of minor repairs. The volunteers have worked with the City of Mount Vernon for updates to the standpipe and storm-water systems. They have also taken area elementary school children on tours and made the theater’s presence known on a local basis. But non-professionals—even enthusiastic ones—have their limits. At this point it is necessary to hire experts in conservation, restoration, and construction who will, among other things:
- bring the buildings’ heating, electrical, and plumbing systems up to code;
- construct a replacement for the now-unusable rear section of the Annex;
- renovate the theater’s original proscenium arch and horseshoe balcony;
- install elevators and handicap access; and
- restore the historic first floor façades with their elegant window surrounds.
At some time in the future, construction and the greater part of the renovation will be complete and the theater can open for business. At that point the WDC will lease the remaining basement and ground-floor units and the non-theater space on the second floor to retail and office tenants. This rental income will fund the upkeep of the entire complex in perpetuity. In addition, it will provide support for the local cultural and performing arts groups who will provide much of the programming.
The nature and extent of the work to be done make it imperative for the Woodward Development Corporation to seek outside financial support. The group is about to initiate a $14.2 million capital campaign toward which $4.5 million has already been raised, $2.9 million of it from government agencies. Every member of the WDC board has pledged financial support.
Your generous gift toward this goal will ensure that further generations experience culture, entertainment, and learning opportunities in what will again be recognized as a Knox County and national landmark.