Irwin's Lamp Theatre nears end of demo phase
By Tony LaRussa
Published: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
The inside of the old Lamp Theatre on Main Street in Irwin is a dark, cold, empty shell.
Mortar missing from the joints of the exposed terra-cotta block walls allows daylight and frigid air to stream into the building. A few pieces of dirty, velvet curtain and tattered wallpaper are all that remain from the days before the 76-year-old theater closed in 2004.
But the people leading the effort to restore the former movie house say the condition of the building is just about where it needs to be.
“We've really been focusing on gutting the inside of the building so we can begin construction,” said Councilman John Cassandro, who serves on the Relight the Lamp Committee. “So it's pretty exciting that we're finally getting to the end of the demolition phase of this project. It's a milestone.”
Since spring, volunteers have been busy ripping out old plaster, tearing down walls and removing piles of old paint cans, rusted wire, cinder block and debris that accumulated in the building over the years.
“The theater seats need a good cleaning, but they are in pretty good shape, so we have them stored in Greensburg at the Westmoreland County Cultural Trust,” Cassandro said. “But there wasn't much of anything else that could be salvaged.”
The theater was donated to the trust in 2006, which started remodeling in early 2009. After Irwin officials presented the Trust with a proposal to develop the building, it was sold to the borough in March for $1.
Irwin officials say the roughly $600,000 worth of work done by the trust put the Lamp project within reach.
“There is no way we would have been able to take this on if we had to come up with all the money,” Cassandro said. “But now we feel confident that we can get this done.”
When the borough obtained the building, it already had a new roof; a new heating, air-conditioning and ventilation system; a new electrical panel; and some new plumbing, said borough engineer Lucien Bove, who has been volunteering as an architectural and engineering consultant for the project.
Glimpses of what the Relight the Lamp Committee is trying to do with the theater are beginning to show.
The building has a new front made of tempered glass and brushed aluminum that was installed farther out onto the sidewalk to increase the size of the lobby. A structural foundation above the entrance also has been built in preparation for a new marquee that will have an LED display to announce events.
The exterior work was paid for with a $15,000 façade grant from the state, borough manager Mary Benko said.
As soon as the winter weather breaks, work to complete the outside “will move quickly,” said Jim Halfhill, the borough's public-works director, who has voluntarily been overseeing that portion of the project.
The façade will be finished with synthetic plaster, or stucco, which can be colored and shaped to mimic brick and sandstone, so it blends in with the historic style of surrounding buildings, said Halfhill, adding that about $20,000 worth of materials was donated by Exterior Products of Pittsburgh.
Another $30,000 worth of waterproofing material and labor for the building's basement to protect the new electrical panel was donated by Better Choice Waterproofing in Irwin, Halfhill said.
Plans also call for the removal of a portion of the building's side wall leading to a vacant lot where the Irwin Hotel once stood so heavy equipment can be brought in for the remodeling. When work is completed, the doors installed in the opening will allow theater patrons to access a courtyard planned for the lot.
The tiny stage also will be extended into the auditorium to accommodate live performances and an orchestra pit below.
Installation of a digital movie-projection system, along with state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment, also is in the works.
Cassandro said the desire to contribute to the project is part of the fabric of Irwin.
“I have to credit our council for really getting behind this project,” he said. “And I can't tell you how many people I've met who said they want to help out because of the memories they have of the Lamp while growing up. They have a connection to the place, so it's no surprise, really, that they want to see it come back to life.”
The borough is more than halfway towards the $150,000 in matching funds needed to secure $500,000 in grants that have promised by the state and county, Cassandro said. The local match will be used to complete the lobby, restrooms and concession area.
Work to complete the auditorium will be put out for bid and done by a professional contractor.
“Fundraising remains one of our top priorities,” Cassandro said. “But we feel good about our chances. We recently had a performance of ‘The Odd Couple' at a local restaurant that raised $5,000 in two nights. So we're looking at doing more things like that. And we haven't even gone to our local businesses yet to ask for their help.”
Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-856-7400, ext. 8626 or at email@example.com.
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