Monday, September 21, 2009

Georgia Theatre owner pitches blend of food, music and museum

By BLAKE AUED | | Story updated at 12:10 am on 9/17/2009

The Georgia Theatre's owner says he wants the rebuilt music venue to become a tourist attraction and the centerpiece of the downtown Athens music scene.

Wilmot Greene wants to submit plans as early as next month to rebuild the Georgia Theatre, he said, which was gutted by fire in June.

According to conceptual drawings Greene and architects showed the Athens-Clarke Historic Preservation Commission on Wednesday, the rebuilt theater will closely resemble its pre-fire self, with the exception of a rooftop bar and restaurant.

Inside, Greene said he plans to improve the balcony and bathrooms, add a more powerful air-conditioning system and turn the mezzanine level where the office used to be into a museum.

Members of the Historic Preservation Commission, a panel with the power to approve development in local historic districts like downtown, praised the early plans at an informal hearing Wednesday.

"It gives the tourist or the local person a reason to go into this historic building and enjoy it," HPC member Alexander Sams said.

The building dates back to the late 19th century and served as a hotel, YMCA and movie theater before it was converted into a music venue in the 1970s. It is known for its Art Deco architecture.

Greene said he was inspired by the number of patrons who come from all across North Georgia and college towns like Clemson, S.C., and Auburn, Ala., for concerts.

"It's amazing how many tickets we sold to people who aren't from Athens," he said. "I always stood back at the bar thinking 'Who are all these people? Where did they all come from?' "

Architects hope the work of restoring the theater can begin early next year, and Greene said his goal is to re-open by New Year's Eve 2010.

The rooftop bar restaurant, a partnership with local caterers White Tiger Gourmet, will be open for lunch and sometimes dinner, drawing people who are interested in history but not necessarily music. It also will serve as a "quiet space" to take a break during concerts, Greene said. Only acoustic performers will play on the roof, he said.

The museum on the mezzanine level will feature local art, sculptures and plaques with the names of donors who helped pay to rebuild it, Greene said.

Greene has raised only $3,000 so far through a partnership with the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, but has not ironed out all the details to begin really raising money through the nonprofit to restore the theater's facade, he said.

Greene has said he does not think his insurance and a bank loan will be enough to cover his debt and the cost of rebuilding the theater.

He has hired Birmingham, Ala.-based Davis Architects, the same firm that is designing a new parking deck next door to the Georgia Theatre, to handle the rebuilding project. The theater and deck projects will not interfere with each other, architects said.

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