The Paramount Theatre is located in Youngstown, Ohio and was originally known as the Liberty Theatre. Designed by Detroit architect C. Howard Crane, with Stanley & Scheibel serving as associate architects, the vaudeville house opened on February 11, 1918 with the production of “A Modern Musketeer.” The late Neo-classical, Ecole des Beaux Arts exterior featured terra cotta ornamentation, while the interior featured ornate plaster detailing and 1,700 seats.
In 1929, Paramount Pictures Corporation purchased the theater and renamed it the Paramount Theatre. It then spent $200,000 modernizing the facility and installing a sound system for talkies. In 1933, Paramount went into receivership due to the Great Depression, but the company and theater survived to begin showing movies. A speakeasy later operated out of the basement.
Mirroring Youngstown’s fortunes, the theater began declining in the mid-1970s, and the final movie shown was in 1976 – “Let’s Do It Again” that starred Bill Cosby.
In 1983, two developers – Richard Blackwell and William Andrews purchased the theater and planned to restore the theater to its original condition. But the partners wanted their $100,000 loan application to be split; approximately three-fourths of the money would go towards the renovation of the theater, while the remainder would be used as a downpayment on the purchase of the closed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot. Profits from the theater would pay off the mortgage on the station – which was questioned by many who believed that the theater’s fortunes would be squandered for other projects. Their loan was rejected, and the partners vented their frustration, assuming that the city, banks and a redevelopment corporation were stonewalling them. In addition, a scant $2,000 had been donated to support the rehabilitation efforts.
The Paramount was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. In many cases, this would have sparked a reasoned and more expedient path towards rehabilitation of the building, but the economic drag set upon Youngstown from a decade prior led to the building remaining vacant.
On December 29 and 30, the Paramount hosted “Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. Steel Mill Movie Day.” The event included a tour of the theater, a close up view of the then 67-year-old pipe organ, 1.5 hours of movies of the former mill, and a brief on why the steel business was in the condition that it was. Steel memorabilia was provided by the Paramount, Ohio Historical Society and CASTLO Industrial Park, the latter which was located at the former Youngstown Sheet & Tube Struthers Works.
Ohio One purchased the abandoned theater in 1985 for $26,800, with the goal of rehabilitating the theater – although no work progressed and the building fell into further disrepair. The building was then sold on April 21, 2006 to an investment group led by Grande Ventures Inc. of Wheaton, Illinois and Lou Frangos of Cleveland, for a mere $79,900. Grande Ventures was a new corporation founded by Paul Warshauer solely to restore and reopen old theaters. The redevelopment plan pitched by the newly formed LLC was a first floor for theater and musical events with seating for 300 to 600, and a restaurant and cabaret bar in the basement. The balcony would be converted into a 300-seat movie theater, or two 150-seat theaters. The investment group sought tax credits from the federal government for the projected $4.8 million restoration.
But like prior proposals, no work was completed and the building was in dire need of structural repairs. Leaks in the roof that began years prior had formed years prior had developed into holes in the roof, which damaged the ornate plaster molding inside. The water damage wasn’t limited to the architectural niceties – wooden risers began rotting, chunks of the suspended ceiling began collapsing onto the stage, and even entire floors began giving way to the ground below.
In June 2010, the Paramount Project was formed to assist in the reuse of the Paramount Theatre. The committee wanted to raise $4 million over the next three to five years to save the front terra cotta facade, and to demolish the remainder, converting it into an outdoor amphitheater and gathering space. In November, the city of Youngstown purchased the Paramount Theatre for $80,000 from Frangos. The move came a month after a majority of the council members refused a motion to purchase the abandonment, citing the liability of owning such a building and the high cost of asbestos abatement and demolition, which would cost anywhere from $400,000 to $750,000.
In July 2011, the state of Ohio approved of Clean Ohio funds for the theater. The state, as part of the Clean Ohio program, would spend $803,490 to clear asbestos and demolish part of the Paramount. After the demolition, the building’s front facade would be restored to its historic appearance and would serve an outdoor amphitheater with a public space behind it. The city would contribute $269,553 in matching dollars for assessment, acquisition, remediation and demolition. The city’s board of control, comprised of the mayor, law director and finance director, approved a $19,500 contract with Strollo Architects of Youngstown to develop a plan to demolish the theater sans the front facade. The board also entered into an agreement with Brownfield Restoration Group of New York for $56,028 to supervise the environmental cleanup of the Paramount in accordance to Clean Ohio Revitalization Fund policies.
A preliminary investigation by Strollo found that the front of the Paramount would not strong enough to stand on its own if the remainder of the theater is demolished.If the front of the theater could not be saved, the Paramount Project would walk away from their proposal. To secure the front of the building would cost $900,000 to $1.2 million. The rather grim report from Centric Engineering, a company hired by Strollo for a preliminary site assessment of the building, noted that if the main theater walls were demolished, the front facade would have no means to resist wind loading. Steel beams inside and out would be needed to hold up the facade. Careful demolition would be needed to minimize vibration transfer to the facade to reduce the chance of terra cotta ornamentation breaking off.
The rather depressing news leaves the future of the Paramount Theatre in jeopardy. The theater is one of the greatest tragedies of Youngstown, absent of the major job losses that occurred in the 1970s with the closure of most of its steel industry. With the exception of the facade, very little is left to salvage for a reuse of the Paramount, and it’s future on Youngstown’s main street is becoming dim.