The Emery Theatre, located in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio, is a closed theater that adjoins the former Ohio Mechanics Institute.
Built between 1909 and 1911 9 to house the Ohio Mechanics Institute, later known as the Ohio College of Applied Sciences, the six-story building featured thick concrete walls, hardwood floors, slate steps, terrazzo flooring, and detailed marble and wooden railings. 1 The Mechanics Institute dated to 1828 when it offered engineering programs. It merged with the University of Cincinnati in 1969, 8 becoming the OMI College of Applied Science in 1978. 10 14
In 1917, the Cincinnati Fire Alarm Bell was donated to the Ohio Mechanics Institute in recognition of the Institute’s contributions to 19th-century firefighting technology. 14 The 1,549-pound bell was moved from the circa 1843 Gifts Engine House and installed atop the Emery.
A fundraising drive was launched in 1945 with a goal of raising $100,000 to modernize the building. 14 The Cincinnati Fire Alarm Bell was relocated to the Cincinnati Fire Division Museum in 1974.
In 1989, the OMI College of Applied Science moved to the main University of Cincinnati campus in Uptown. 16 In recent years prior to its restoration, the main Emery Building was primarily used for storage. 14
The Emery Theatre was completed in 1911 4 8 as an auditorium for the Ohio Mechanics Institute. The inaugural concert was held on January 6, 1912. 14 The 1,950-seat, five-level facility 2 9 was funded through an endowment from Mary Emery in memory of her husband, Thomas J. Emery, 4 who had plans to construct a technical school. 9
Between 1909 and 1937, 9 the Emery was home to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra 3 until it moved to the larger Music Hall. 9 The interior acoustics were designed by Leopold Stokowski, the Orchestra’s music director between 1909 and 1912. 3 The theater was once compared to Carnegie Hall by legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski, 8 and is considered an acoustically pure venue. 9
In 1927, the “Mighty Wurlitzer” 2,000-pipe organ was installed at the Albee Theatre in downtown when that facility opened, costing only $55,000. It was salvaged in 1969 when the Albee was closed, 6 and rededicated in the Emery Theater in 1977. 614
In the 1970’s, the facility became the home of the Ohio Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society. 3 A classic movie series debuted at the Emery in 1978.
During the 1980’s, at least three attempts were made to restore the Emery. 9 Senator Stanley Aronoff, who was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, secured $4.5 million towards the restoration of the Emery Theater in 1988. 2 As Senate president in 1990, Aronoff helped secure another $500,000 towards the project.
The monies were never applied towards the restoration of the Emery, as $3.2 million of the allocation was spent towards the construction of a new building to house the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. 2 Another $1.4 million was used to renovate French Hall for University College. The remaining $400,000 went towards the planning of the restoration of the Emery. The city was also more focused on completing the Aronoff Center for the Arts three blocks south on Walnut without having to compete for funding. 9
October 24, 1999, the Emery Theatre’s historic “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ tooted its tin pipes for the last time. The organ was dismantled after its last performance so that the theater renovation plans could proceed and so that the organ could be restored. 6 The cost of organ restoration was estimated to be $250,000, and included rebuilding and releathering the pipe chests, refinishing the organ console, and rehammering the piano. It was last rebuilt between 1967 and 1977.
The theater itself went dark on December 5, following three performances in November and December. 6
In the summer of 1997, the Cincinnati Preservation Association and the University of Cincinnati began to request proposals from local developers to renovate the theater and to convert the former Ohio College of Applied Sciences building into apartments. 15
The Emery Center Corporation secured $240,000 in start-up financing and selected Mansur Real Estate Services of Indianapolis, Indiana as a developer in February 1999. 9 On May 19, Mansur approached the University of Cincinnati with a $20 million redevelopment proposal to restore the Ohio College of Applied Sciences building and the Emery Theatre. 5 12 One of the conditions established by the University, was that private donations must total $2 million before the property would be leased over. A campaign for funds that begun after the developer’s announcement in May netted nearly $2.2 million in private funds in only three weeks. 11
A design plan by GBBN Architects and Mansur Real Estate Services was unveiled on December 7 to supporters and potential donors. 4 The target date for completion was set for January 2001. The project called for 36 one-bedroom and 26 two-bedroom apartments spread among five floors, and a three-level, 62-space garage. 4 By the time of the announcement, roof and window repairs had already begun on the Emery.
The University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees approved a contract with the Emery Center Corporation for the redevelopment project in June. 7 The university was “eager” to unload the College building and theater, as it cost the university more than $250,000 annually to maintain the combined structure.
The Kroger Company announced on October 19 that it would become a limited partner in Emery Center Apartments Limited, and that it would invest $1.6 million towards the redevelopment of the Applied Sciences building and the theater. 37
The financing plan for the apartment renovation at this point included commitments from five organizations: 4
- The Cincinnati Development Fund, who contributed $2.65 million to the first mortgage
- The Cincinnati Equity Fund, who contributed $1 million to the second mortgage
- The City of Cincinnati, who contributed $1.5 million to the third mortgage
- The Kroger Company, who contributed $1.6 million in tax credits
- The University of Cincinnati, who contributed $2.8 million in gap financing.
By spring 2000, the wide hallways that once bustled with students in the Applied Sciences building were refurbished. The original slate step stairwells and the marble and wooden railings were preserved, along with the hardwood floors in the units. 1 The three-level parking garage was carved into the center of the building, where carriages once waited during performances at the Emery Theater, hidden by first floor retail and garage doors on Clay Street. 1 Central air conditioning units were installed, along with exposed duct work, in every unit. A fitness center and a community room were added to compliment the apartment complex. 1
During the restoration of the College building, approximately $750,000 in structural repairs were completed in the theater. 4
In the summer, the Emery Center Corporation requested $5 million in funding from the state of Ohio as a result of the loss of appropriations several years prior. The requested funds would have come out of the state of Ohio’s $1.7 billion construction budget, and would have been used to jumpstart renovations, with former Senate president Aronoff at the reins. 2 The Corporation also requested $7 million from corporations and individuals, and $3.5 million in state historic tax credit financing. 3 Six organizations committed $2.62 million to the restoration of the theater, including a $1 million anonymous gift. 4
Proponents of the project stated that the theater was needed as a mid-sized performance venue for the Cincinnati Opera, the School for Creative and Performing Arts, the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, and the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus. 2 A preliminary plan called for the preservation of the acoustics and the historic status of the theater, while bringing the venue up to code. The cost of the project to modernize the theater was projected to be $17.5 million. 2 The Cincinnati Opera and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra expressed interest in utilizing the mid-sized theater as their base of operations. 8
In September 2000, several recommendations for the restoration of the theater were presented by three consultants: a theater expert, Auerbach & Associates, an acoustician, Kirkegaard & Associates of Chicago, and an organ consultant, David Weingartner of Dayton. 8 The team looked at some of the ways to increase the amount of open stage area, methods to improve the loading efficiency to the stage, the incorporation of an acoustical shell, an enlarged orchestra pit and improved backstage areas. Another possible improvement included moving the organ body to a compartment under the stage and the pipes to the sides of the proscenium when not in use.
On December 7, a design plan towards the restoration of the theater was prepared by GBBN Architects and Mansur Real Estate Services, with the estimated costs for the full restoration of the theater tabbed to be between $10 and $18 million. 4 The renovation would include the creation or restoration of two levels of theater support, the inclusion of a carpenter’s shop, dressing rooms, conductor’s office, library and reception office. The lobby, gallery, and parlor would be restored.
Phase one of the theater renovation project would include the reconstruction of the roof, facade and windows, costing $9.7 million. A second, $10 million phase, would include the theater’s interior. 11
In March 2001, the former Ohio College of Applied Sciences building was re-birthed as the Emery Center Apartments, officially opening on May 18. 1
The Requiem Project
The Requiem Project was formed in 2008 by two New Yorkers to renovate the Emery Theatre into an interdisciplinary arts center that would host films, concerts, and theater. 18 In 2010, the group signed a binding letter of intent with the Emery Center Corporation, which subleased the theatre, to allow it to move forward with its projected $13 million renovation of the venue.
The project was halted in 2012 over a dispute with leasing agreements. 18
The Requiem Project filed suit in 2013 in a bid to force the University of Cincinnati, which owned the building that housed the theater, Emery Center Apartments LP, and the Emery Center Corporation, to award it a long-term lease so that it could renovate the theatre. 17 18 In October, the Requiem Project amended their complaint against the University of Cincinnati, stating that the university had failed to uphold Mary Emery’s wishes when she donated funds to construct the theater, and to award it damages. 17
The university gained control over the Emery in the 1970’s and became the trustee of Emery’s charitable trust. The university then leased the school to the Emery Center Apartments for the apartment conversion project and the theater to the Emery Center Corporation, which was tasked with managing and renovating it. 18
During the renovation of the school into apartments, the theater lost running water, heat, and bathrooms. 18
On March 18, 2016, the Requiem Project agreed to drop its lawsuit against the university. 18 The university agreed to pay the group $200,000 but did not admit any wrongdoing. A similar settlement, not disclosed, was reached between the Requiem Project and the Emery Center Apartments and the Emery Center Corporation.