Christmas Art Spirits past, present and future will rest easy now with a holiday miracle that began Thursday night for the Liberty Center Association for the Arts.
Housed in the familiar yellow brick building in downtown Sedalia, formerly known as the Lona Theater when it was built in 1920, the venue will be seeing some changes in the coming year. In a fundraising kickoff in the Hotel Bothwell’s Ballroom Thursday evening, Ed Watkins announced a six-figure donation to LCAA, given by Joe Fischer, a local community leader and philanthropist.
Fischer’s gift will propel LCAA into a new era by unifying and expanding the local arts community with the renovation and expansion of the existing building, bringing it up to ADA specifications, along with new gallery additions. The expansion will also create a collaboration between LCAA and the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art at State Fair Community College.
Watkins, of St. Peters, is the campaign manager for LCAA’s “Next Stage Capital Campaign.” Watkins previously was manager for the Trails End Project.
Watkins said the approximately $1 million project will be done in two phases. The first phase will take in the downstairs portion along with a new addition costing around $800,000. The second phase will be upstairs at a cost of $200,000.
“We’re going to have an addition that will knock your socks off,” Watkins told the group of approximately 56.
Also speaking Thursday night were Mayor Elaine Horn, Fischer, LCAA Executive Director Terri Ballard and Daum Museum of Contemporary Art Director and LCAA board member Tom Piche.
“I’ve often wandered through the building, and wondered if the building could talk, if the walls could talk, what they would say,” Ballard said. “I’m sure they would speak of the fun people have had, the friendships that have been formed, the talent that has performed on its stages, and even a visit by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Over time the building has been neglected and we were close to shutting our doors, but thankfully we have some board members who said they weren’t going to let this happen on their watch. For the first time in a long time the future of the Liberty Center looks bright. I’m sure tonight the old building does stand a little taller, and beckons us once again. We ask that you join us in making this facility the majestic place it once was.”
“… I’m certainly passionate about the arts and its importance to any community, but especially to our community,” Fischer added. “We have an amazing group of people in the arts, in all forms, that are deeply rooted in Sedalia. They make our life that much richer … but we truly have here in Sedalia, what I’ve been referring to as an art mecca, the means to draw many people to our community to enjoy the arts.”
After speaking, Fischer introduced Piche to the group.
“I’m happy to express the museum’s support for the renovation project for the Liberty Arts Center,” Piche said. “And to welcome the sister institution to Sedalia. I’m especially excited about the potential growth that a state-of-the-art exhibition facility will have on the arts in our community. I’m also excited about the opportunity this addition presents for the Daum Museum — for collaborations between the Daum and the Liberty Center, for advice, but also to have periodic exhibition space in historic downtown Sedalia.”
Liberty Center: a historical look
The building first opened Aug. 12, 1920, as the Lona Theater which could originally seat 1,500 people. The entrance faced Ohio Ave., where Fitter’s Fifth Street Pub is now. The theater was built by a group of businessmen who together raised $200,000 for the construction.
On Oct. 9, 1920, vice presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor paid a visit to the Lona and spoke to a full house.
By 1928 the Lona became a movie theater and was renamed the Liberty Theater. But in 1958, the proud, once bustling building was sold to Beatrice Foods and became silenced as warehouse for cottage cheese and ice cream. Eventually the building was donated to the city, who in turn gave it to the Sedalia Community Theater.
Community Theater members Ginger Swearingen and Jim Giokaris and architect Neal Rayburn called for community support to fund and restore the building. The first fundraiser for the building was hosted in 1983, and once again the Liberty Center was filled with artistic activity and creative life.
In 1991 California artist Will Nettleship created the sidewalk sculpture outside the Liberty Center, known as the “Queen of the Prairie.” At present the Lona has morphed into the Liberty Center Association for the Arts, which works to enrich the Sedalia area through its arts programs, live theater productions, art exhibits, art classes and musical concerts.
Once again it’s time for the building to expand its artistic life-force.
LCAA moves into a new era
A week before the announcement, the Democrat spoke with Watkins, Fischer and LCAA Director Terri Ballard.
“Joe and the Fischer family are making a $100,000 commitment for the kickoff for the campaign,” Watkins said.
Fischer has always been a strong supporter of the arts in Sedalia community; he recently became involved with the LCAA board and decided it was time to act. Watkins said the kick-off is about public awareness to share Fischer’s vision.
“The first time I met Joe, was such a delightful experience because he started educating me about this area, this region of the country being an art mecca,” Watkins said. “I loved that concept.”
Ballard said there have always been issues with the steep stairs at LCAA that lead to the art galleries and theater entrance. The addition and revisions will correct those issues.
“Joe Fischer had the wonderful idea that in lieu of an elevator why don’t we address an addition on the west side of the building,” Ballard said. “Which would open it up and add some extra gallery space and modernize our bathrooms. In the assessment it was kind of elevator versus handicap accessible, and being handicap accessible doesn’t always mean you have to have an elevator.”
The 90-foot long by 20-foot wide addition will add an indoor handicap entrance to the theater by the use of ramps.
“He’s been working with (Robert) Rollings Architects to come up with a plan,” she said. “Our concession lounge area will come downstairs. Something I’m really excited about is, we’ll still have local gallery space, but we will also be partnering with the Daum Museum to show pieces from that gallery as well,” she added. “The original staircase is encased inside of the wall so we’re going to get rid of the double staircase and just have one grand staircase.”
“There is right now, an opening in the brick wall that was bricked shut and it has an arch,” Fischer said. “So instead of the stairs we have here, we’ll have a single set of stairs to access the offices upstairs. A major issue is ADA and ADA accessibility and we have to address that. This is going to address that, so we’ll have some ramps here with a difference in elevation from here to there of 20 inches, so we’ll have two 10-foot ramps.”
Downstairs, the existing office area will become the bar and lounge. The box office area will become the local art gallery, and the box office will be located where the left staircase is now.
At the present time, the refurbished downstairs will be renamed the Fischer Family Galleries, Ballard and Watkins said.
“And that will be this whole area as you walk in,” Watkins added. “We’re going to redo all of that, and we’re going to open up as much as we can.”
The new addition will be accessed to the west near the existing downstairs women’s bathroom. It will feature two additional galleries that can be locked, to protect artwork when LCAA isn’t open. New ADA specific men’s and women’s bathrooms will be located there, as well as a ramp system leading to the theater.
Fischer said the galleries in the new portion will have controlled lighting to protect the paintings, and there will also be bricked archways.
“These windows will be open,” he added, pointing to a floor layout plan. “So that you have the sidewalk traffic looking into the gallery space — it’s inviting, it’ll create a buzz just by being there. Plus it makes this side of the building look so much nicer than it is now.”
“Nothing for public purposes will be upstairs anymore,” Ballard added.
Upstairs will feature the director’s office, a conference room, a small kitchen and storage space. The theater lighting area will also be pulled back into the revised second story, leaving more room for seating in the theater’s top rear area.
“We also have other issues that are very important to the building,” Fischer said. “Such as securing the building, tuck pointing and whatever needs to be required to secure the roof, and basically we’ll be able to extend the life of this building by many, many years. That’s a huge part of it — it’s at a critical point so we have to do this. It’s just an amazing building and we need to do what we can to secure that.”
“I think the whole concept here is going to enhance everything, the Depot, everything is going to be enhanced by this facility,” Watkins said. “This is a blessing beyond blessings to this community.”
Raising the money is paramount before the actual construction begins, although the group is hoping to break ground by July or August of 2014.
“We’ll have a six-month campaign, it will be all year long, but basically the biggest part of it will be the first six months. That’s when we’ll be raising significant dollars,” Watkins said.
“You can see the immediate needs,” Fischer said. “I can see things happening here prior to construction, once we reach a certain number.”
The first funds would go toward securing the building, he added.
“So here we are at the third round in this building’s life, of going back to the community to champion its cause,” added Ballard. “I think it’s exciting, the timing is perfect. By the time this is all done, we’ll be ready to have our 100th anniversary in 2020.”