May 28, 2018
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Ellsworth’s Grand theater listed on National Register of Historic Places

By Mario Moretto, BDN Staff

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The Grand auditorium on Main Street, already the most recognizable symbol of downtown Ellsworth, now has another feather to place in its cap: a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The theater received word last week that its application has been approved by the National Park Service, which runs the program. Placement on the list makes the Grand eligible for federal and private funding available only to historic sites.

The Grand’s executive director, Zoe Scott, was pleased to hear the news, but didn’t seem surprised in an interview Tuesday.

“The Grand is really a center for the downtown community,” she said. “Just try to imagine downtown Ellsworth without the Grand.”

The listing was four years in the making, Scott said. The theater decided to pursue a listing in 2008. First, that meant receiving historic status from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which the Grand won in 2009. After that, the theater needed the OK from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, which nominated the theater for national historic status in 2010.

Christi Mitchell, architectural historian for the state preservation commission, which helped the Grand achieve its landmark status, said the theater is significant for two reasons.

The first is its art deco and art moderne style, especially in its exterior tower and marquee. The streamlined, vitrolite-glass tower that shoots skyward above the Grand’s main entrance is symbolic of those styles, she said. Other similar theaters have since been torn down or replaced.

“From an architectural perspective, it’s a great example of the type of theater constructed in the ’30s,” she said. “Every city, every town, had its theater, but there are very few left.”

The second reason the Grand merits placement is the way it was built, Mitchell said. In 1938, the block currently occupied by the Grand at Riverside Cafe was the last vacant block in the city’s downtown. After a devastating fire five years earlier, the city was eager to build a space that would bring the community together.

The city worked with a developer to build up the Grand block, with retail spaces surrounding the theater in the center.

“This hopefully makes people realize the importance of this theater,” Mitchell said. “It’s not just another building, but it has a role in the history of the community.”

The Grand was eligible for historic status because it has maintained its original look, feel and purpose. Infrastructure has been updated and the building has been maintained, but Scott said the building is, for all intents and purposes, exactly as it was in 1938 — right down to the glass-bead movie screen.

Scott said the historic status will create an impetus for future executive directors and board members to maintain the integrity of the historic building.

“A lot of old theaters choose not to do this,” she said. “But it’s a little gem we can’t just let fall into the earth.”

Now Scott is trying to figure out the best way to let the world know about the Grand’s historic significance.

“The letter says we can get a certificate, but we really want a plaque,” she said, referring to the common, stately signs on other sites, which alert passersby to the listed status. She wasn’t sure where to get one, and it turns out the Grand will have to buy its own.

“It’s a mistaken assumption that the plaques come with the designation,” said Mitchell at the MHPC. “There is no official plaque, but there’s a lot of companies that sell them.”

The Grand will celebrate its listing, as well as the restoration of its original marquee, at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7. The auditorium will host free music on Main Street, a ceremonial lighting of the marquee, and a free showing of the 1942 classic, “His Gal Friday.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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