Businessman E.H. Crosby was looking toward the future 90 years ago when he invested his money into building the Jayhawk Theatre in downtown Topeka.
The luxurious theater was part of Crosby’s vision for a hotel-theater-shopping arcade complex that would re-energize the city, create jobs, attract visitors and persuade local shoppers to spend their dollars at downtown retailers rather than travel out of town to buy clothing, appliances and other necessities.
It’s a vision embraced today by Jeff Carson and John Holecek, who are leading the charge to restore the Jayhawk Theatre to its former grandeur, while adding state-of-the-art technology and modern amenities that will stake its claim as the centerpiece of the downtown revitalization effort.
The estimated cost of the restoration is $12 million.
“It’s been proven over and over that returning a downtown historic theater to community use is the greatest driver of downtown revitalization,” said Holecek, executive director of the Jayhawk State Theatre of Kansas. “Downtown revitalization (in Topeka) is doomed if the Jayhawk Theatre isn’t restored.”
In addition to a first-rate film house and live performance hall, Holecek and Carson, president of the Jayhawk State Theatre of Kansas board and co-founder of Gizmo Pictures, believe a rejuvenated Jayhawk can function as a venue for community and business events, as well as help create an atmosphere attractive to young people.
“We want to celebrate the history,” Carson said, “but we need young people to come out and feel a cultural comfort … and they don’t have that today.”
The League of Historic American Theatres has calculated the economic impact of a downtown historic theater in a city the size of Topeka as creating 65 full-time jobs, increasing household income by $1.4 million annually and new yearly expenditures by $1.9 million.
Peeling paint and passion
When Carson walks through the Jayhawk Theatre, 720 S.W. Jackson St., he doesn’t see spalling paint on the walls, water damage to the ceiling or an open cavern once filled with rows of seats.
He sees the potential for returning the theater to public use, and an urgency to move forward on restoration plans while people are rallying the downtown’s revitalization and before the theater deteriorates further.
“We’re riding a wave of renaissance in downtown,” Carson said. “If we don’t do it now, it probably can’t be done. People may not have the same amount of enthusiasm in the future.”
Billed as “Topeka’s first deluxe motion picture palace,” the Jayhawk opened its doors Aug. 16, 1926. People stood in line to be the first to sit in its plush seats, see the twinkling “stars” created by the dome lighting, enjoy the “refrigerated air” cooling the theater, and clap for the silent films and vaudeville acts on its stage.
Fifty years later, the Jayhawk closed, and the theater fell into disrepair. Earlier attempts to restore the theater stalled.
“It just got neglected for a long time,” Carson said.
In December, the board of the Jayhawk State Theatre of Kansas, the nonprofit organization dedicated to the restoration of the theater, agreed to hire Vance Kelley, who leads TreanorHL’s Preservation Studio, as the project’s architect and Eby Construction Company, of Wichita, as general contractor. Eby Construction president Mike Grier has been involved in a number of theater restorations in Kansas.
Construction plans and architectural drawings are in development, but Carson said the vision for the theater generally includes:
— A main entrance off S.W. Jackson Street, with a marquee, ticket box, concession stand/bar, restrooms, administration offices and exit to the Jayhawk Walk, which leads to the eight doors opening into the auditorium. The area is now used as a gallery.
—Removal of the east wall in the gallery to expose an area that will be converted into a green room, dressing rooms, catering kitchen, set-building area and entrance onto the stage.
— A marquee at its S.W. 7th Street entrance.
— Restoration/repair of the stenciling, plaster, Goddess of Agriculture mural and lights in the auditorium.
— Installation of 950 19- and 22-inch seats in the auditorium and balcony.
— Replacement of curtains and sound and lighting systems on the stage and projector/spotlights in the projection booth.
— A coffee, beer, wine and snack bar on the promenade leading to the balcony.
— Replacement of tubing and repainting of the “Jayhawk” neon signs so they can be displayed inside the theater complex. Other items from the Jayhawk on view will include the original light board, pipes from the original Kilgen organ, a large spotlight and original theater seats.
Jayhawk Theatre received a $43,000 grant in 2013 to install temporary electrical enhancements and two 5-ton air-conditioners to reduce the humidity in the auditorium and deter additional damage, Carson said. A separate grant of $15,000 replaced the door to the alley and a fire escape.
Other major grants have included $250,000 from the Federal Home Loan Bank, $64,000 from the Heritage Trust Fund/Kansas Historical Society for temporary roofing; $100,000 from the city guest tax for marquee construction; $680,000 from the city guest tax over a 12-year period for Holecek’s first-year salary and architectural costs; $51,000 from Federal Home Loan Bank of Topeka; $5,000 from US Bank; $5,000 from city of Topeka for marketing expenses; and $2,200 from Downtown Topeka Inc. for the gallery remodel.
“A full structure study was done (of the Jayhawk), and it was positive in 2016,” he noted.
Carson said consideration is being given to making the theater a LEED-certified structure with solar panels. The panels would save an estimated $4,000 in energy costs.
“It’s a 90-year-old facility, but we want to look 90 years forward,” he said.
The next step
Holecek is no stranger to asking for money if he believes in a cause. He raised $10.5 million for the restoration of the historic McPherson Opera House — $2 million over the cost for the theater itself — and served as its executive director for 13 years.
“I’ve been asked how I managed to raise $10.5 million in a town of 14,000 people,” Holecek said. “I’m not ashamed to say I pray for money.”
A capital campaign to raise $12 million is expected to be launched soon. Much of the cost is expected to be covered by historic tax credits, grants and corporate and individual donations.
The capital campaign will include opportunities for large-scale donors — individuals, families, corporations, organizations — to be part of the theater’s legacy by naming the auditorium or the gallery.
“I truly believe there would be broad thanks to the donors, and over time, (thanks from) the tens of thousands of people who will use the auditorium and its gallery,” Holecek said.
Other fundraising options include:
— Membership in the Million Dollar Club. For $100,000, a donor can have his or her name displayed on a theater wall.
— Membership in the Jayhawk Theatre Society. Donation levels range from $25 to $1,000. Society members receive project updates, invites to member-only events and discounts on tickets.
— Small name plaques on the armrests of auditorium seats, on which donors can have messages inscribed, can be purchased for various prices.
Holecek said federal and state historic tax credits are being sought for the auditorium’s restoration. The gallery, however, doesn’t qualify for tax credits.
Carson said he is determined to reopen the doors of the Jayhawk.
“The town is tired of the talk of restoration and renovation (of the Jayhawk),” he said. “We’re done talking. It’s really going to happen.”
Contact niche editor Jan Biles at (785) 295-1292.