BRIDGEPORT — The sight of construction workers outside the long shuttered Ramova Theater had neighbors wondering whether the theater was making a comeback.
About $333,000 in 35th Street/Halsted TIF funding is paying for the “stabilization” of the city-owned property at 3518 S. Halsted St., which has incurred water damage and other structural problems since closing in 1986. The stabilization, which included tuckpointing and addressing water infiltration issues, wrapped up earlier this month.
Department of Housing & Economic Development spokesman Peter Strazzabosco said the city "wants to help reinvent the building as a community anchor with an as-of-yet-undetermined use," but that developers aren't exactly lining up for a chance to renovate the building. There are no proposals from developers at this time, Strazzabosco said.
Neighbors and a leading restoration specialist are hoping the repair work is a catalyst for the revitalization of the theater. After all, the city could’ve chosen to tear down, not shore up, the once majestic 1,500-seat movie house.
“We’ve gotten support from people. It seems like a no brainer,” said community activist Maureen Sullivan, creator of the Save the Ramova website and the 3,200 fans-strong Facebook page. “It’s the most beloved theater in the area. There were 12 theaters in Bridgeport. She’s pretty much the only one left.”
Ray Shepardson, a veteran theater preservationist who’s presided over the renovation of the Chicago Theatre, has been in the abandoned theater — a sister to the Music Box theater on the North Side — a few times. He envisions an “extensive, adaptive reuse” that would include the addition of a balcony and stage. Done right, he said, the theater would serve as an anchor for economic development.
“I like to preserve as much of what’s there but it’s a tricky design. It could be worth doing and it could be wonderful. I have not given up hope,” he said. “The problem is how do you get it funded? The city said, 'We can give you $2 million or $3 million in TIF money.' OK, but we’ve got $10 million to go.”
Among the handful of people who've been inside the building over the years is photographer Matt Lambros. He's enamored with abandoned spaces, having photographed about 40 deteriorating theaters throughout the Midwest and east coast for his "After the Final Curtain" project.
Twice in the past two years, he's gotten a first-hand look at the crumbling interior and water-damaged ceiling.
"There are a lot of theaters that have the potential to be renovated ... and there are some where you say, 'No way, there's no way that can be saved,' " he said. "The Ramova is not one of those."