August 17, 2008

Temple May Get New Life As a Theater


GREENSBORO -- Community Theatre of Greensboro has been around for nearly 60 years but never had its own performing space.

It presented its musicals, comedies and dramas in other venues in town: the Carolina Theatre, the Guilford County courthouse, the Broach Theatre -- even the Masonic Temple.

Now, it has its sights set on that Masonic Temple as a potential home.

The nonprofit theater company wants to buy the downtown property and turn it into a performing arts center, Executive Director Mitchel Sommers said Thursday.

It has an option to buy the temple at 426 W. Market St., an annex at 427 W. Friendly Ave. and about 70 parking spaces, Sommers said.

Community Theatre would use the building for shows, rehearsals and offices. It also hopes to provide performance and office space for other nonprofit arts groups.

"I have shown it to a lot of people, and they absolutely love the building and see Community Theatre as a perfect match for the space," Sommers said.

The temple was built in 1928 near the site of the childhood home of short story writer William Sidney Porter, better known as O. Henry.

Ray Hall, president of the Greensboro Masonic Temple Co., which owns and maintains the building, would not say how much his group wants for the property. But Hall called a reported $2 million price "in the ballpark."

The theater company will decide by year's end whether to exercise the purchase option, Sommers said.

It's examining restoration costs, and creating a business plan to show the project's viability.

It's the cost of upkeep that prompted the Masons to consider selling, Hall said.

"The main reason we are entertaining the Community Theatre offer is that they want to preserve that building," Hall said. "We don't want to see it torn down for some other kind of development."

Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro, considers the neoclassical revival-style temple "one of the grandest Masonic lodges in the state."

Sommers has turned to local foundations for help to buy it.

"I think it is a good buy," said Jim Melvin, president of the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, who toured the temple two months ago.

"The challenge is where they get the $2 million. We're committed out right now."

The Community Theatre would be the fourth theater company with its own performing space in downtown Greensboro. The Broach Theatre operates at 520 S. Elm St. City Arts Drama Center groups perform in space in the Greensboro Cultural Center, 200 N. Davie St. Triad Stage became the latest downtown theater when it opened at 232 S. Elm St. in 2002.

Community Theatre has rehearsal and office space in the Greensboro Cultural Center, but no show venue there.

The new venue would allow Community Theatre to expand its programming and put on more shows. But it still will present its popular annual production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Carolina Theatre, Sommers said.

The four-story temple has two performance spaces -- a 150-seat Blue Lodge on the main level and a 299-seat Egyptian-styled Scottish Rite room on the third floor.

In the Scottish Rite room, faux-painted columns with colorful capitals rise high to a ceiling trimmed with multicolored molding.

Painted sphinxes guard the stage, decorated with hanging drops depicting Egyptian scenes.

Community Theatre became interested in the temple in 2005, when it presented "Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" in its Scottish Rite room.

During its "Broadway on the Nile" show there in 2007, "I told them that if they were ever thinking of selling it, call us," Sommers said.

Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 373-5204 or [email protected]

Contact Donald W. Patterson at 373-7027 or [email protected]

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