Bellefontaine, Ohio — Almost nine decades ago (1931), the Holland Theatre opened its doors for the first time in downtown Bellefontaine. The theater is a piece of uniquely-themed architecture, with the playhouse’s creators finding inspiration in 17th-century Dutch villages. It’s hard not to agree that that’s a sight you don’t find every day. Kris Swisher, president of the theater’s board, finds the theater to be “one of a kind.” The restoration has lasted for years, and finally, Bellefontaine residents will be able to enjoy going to the theater once again. Swisher believes that, once they reopen it, it will look just like it did back in the day.
The preservation of the building was a battle Swisher spent two decades on. As the president of the board, her involvement was principal to completion of the preservation. Presently, construction crews are doing final touch-ups to the renovation, which required an investment of $1.3 million. When they finish with that, they will turn their heads to another project on the theater. Namely, they will add a greenroom worth $235,000 for artists to perform behind the stage.
If it all goes according to plan, they will complete the whole makeover in the next 30 days or so. The theater is scheduled to open its doors once again on October 18, when Judy Collins’ performance starts a new season of shows. Managing Director Chris Westhoff said that the opening day would be a great opportunity to create a blend of generations who would interact with each other.
The construction and restoration crews have been working on the theater for several months. The building is one of the most recognizable ones in Bellefontaine, with its unique Flemish-style stepped-gable exterior being hard not to identify. Once opened, visitors will be able to enjoy a concession stand and a bar in the lobby, while there’s also a new technician booth. They have removed all the seats, which they will replace with new ones. They have also removed the carpet in the lobby, with the slate floor underneath now available to the eye.
Another thing they worked meticulously on was restoring the entrance’s wood paneling. A local artist, Cassie Hassel, has painted all the murals in the lobby. However, the most significant change has taken place inside the theater itself. The 576-seater attracted several painters from a New York firm specializing in historic preservation — EverGreene Architectural Arts. The firm has added an artificial brick-and-stone facade, which resembles a 1600s Dutch village.
Originally, Peter Hulsken designed the Holland Theatre. Hulsken was a Dutch native who migrated to Lima, Ohio. When he worked on the theater, he modeled it after Arnhem, his hometown. He changed the walls into a Dutch streetscape with paint and plaster. He finished them off with window boxes, streetlights, and gates. Of course, he added two completely functioning windmills; it just simply couldn’t go without them.
The ceiling, painted sky-blue with clouds and stars, has the purpose of making the visitors feel as if they were watching a movie or a play outdoors — inside a Flemish village. When the Holland opened, it was back when the era of building opulent movie palaces was coming to an end. Many theaters similar to the Holland have been demolished or not repaired. However, Ohio managed to preserve several of them, including the Marion Palace Theatre, the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, the Akron Civic Theatre, and the Ritz Theatre in Tiffin.
Getting the Project Going
Joyce Barrett, CEO of Heritage Ohio, said that the Holland was a marvelous example of an “atmospheric theater,” where they utilize the design to create a unique, specific setting. Barret said that these movie buildings built in the 1920s and 1930s had the goal to transport you to another place.
The Holland faced a decline after its first two decades of success. They sold the theater in 1966 and in 1977, when they split it into five independent theaters. In 1998, the owners put it up for sale once again and closed the multiplex, with the Holland fearing structural neglect and possible demolition. Thankfully for the Holland, Swisher entered the scene. The then-teacher joined forces with her sixth-graders who had as a class project to adopt the theater. They wrote a play “As The Windmill Turns,” which they also performed in order to gain some attention. Against the odds, they managed to do so. They generated enough awareness that Richard Knowlton, a Bellefontaine businessman, bought the Holland and gave it to the Logan County Landmark Preservation as a donation.
Swisher recalled her efforts, claiming that everything felt magical. Their initial goal, she said, was not to buy the theater. They just wanted to save it. The following couple of decades saw the group renovate the building, with the help of major donations from the likes of Save America’s Treasures and Honda of America.
Barrett said that the frustrating thing about the whole ordeal was that they had worked on it for decades. According to Barrett, no one really believed they would manage to do it, but Swisher was a hero who was determined not to give up. Three years ago, there was a turning point in the theater’s fate. Namely, Jeffris Family Foundation out of Wisconsin granted $430,000 to the restoration effort, while the community managed to raise outstanding $860,000. This paved the way to a major renovation project. They closed the Holland in December to begin the works.
Patrick Heilman, superintendent for Thomas & Marker Construction, said that he was proud of how they managed to transform the theater. He added that, when they first arrived, it was a cold, musty place. The money for the greenroom ($235,000) comes from state historic tax credits.
What Lies Ahead
With the works nearing completion (scheduled for December), it’s now up to Westhoff to fill the theater with guests and events. He was in contact with CAPA, which manages several historic theaters in Columbus. Westhoff’s plan for the Holland is mostly based on Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville. The opera house has managed to garner a strong following of its shows, which are primarily about Americana music.
Westhoff said that there were a lot of similarities between Bellefontaine and Nelsonville. But simultaneously, they had a very pointed vision over there, whereas the Holland, according to Westhoff, would feature different styles: international, traditional, classical, jazz, etc.
Alongside Collins, the theater has already booked performances from singer Gary Puckett, bluegrass band Hawktail, artist Angela Perley, and Xylouris White, a musical group from Crete. They will also host tributes to Hank Williams, Red Skelton, and local productions.
Barrett said that the restoration was just the beginning — keeping it rolling was the most important step. Historic theaters are important, according to Barret, because they give something for small communities to do as well as economic vitality.
On Wednesday last week, an elderly Bellefontaine couple stopped by to pick up their season tickets. Debbie and Scott Shellhaas have been active in the theater for some time now, with Debbie being a board member. Scott said that they bought the tickets because it was “top-notch entertainment.” He went on to say that the Holland was the core of the town as it brought variety and expanded the residents’ horizons.