If the historic Emery Theatre had a voice, it was a distant echo ricocheting off of boarded-up buildings and dissolving into the background, unheard by Cincinnati for the nine years its doors were closed. Lately, however, the Emery is a murmur growing louder among art enthusiasts, spreading its message: The doors are open, and the venue’s story is ready to be told once again.
While Cincinnati natives might know little to nothing about this century-old national rarity, the Emery Theatre in Over-the-Rhine is slowly reclaiming its place in the city’s rich arts culture. Best friends and founders of The Requiem Project to restore the theater to its original glory, Tina Manchise and Tara Lindsey Gordon claim it was serendipity that brought them to the forgotten building.
Manchise, from Cincinnati, and Gordon, from Boston, met while attending graduate school at New York University. When Manchise’s mother passed away unexpectedly, she and Gordon found themselves in Cincinnati, uncertain of what to do next. On Manchise’s mother’s birthday, Nov. 11, 2008, they found the Emery.
“It’s a national asset,” Gordon says. “It’s one of three [theaters] in the country that was designed to have what’s considered to be pure acoustics.” She’s referring, of course, to the fact that there isn’t a “bad seat in the house” in the Emery’s auditorium. The walls were designed to carry sound in such a manner that acoustics travelling from the stage have the same quality heard from anywhere in the room.
The structure was originally built by philanthropist Mary Emery in honor of her late husband, and opened its doors in 1911 as home to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and a general performance theater and opera house. After 1950, the theater hosted educational lectures and then became a silent film house until it closed its doors in 1999.
Gordon adds, “The way the structure was when we got involved in 2008, if we didn’t get involved, there were some parties that were invested, but couldn’t invest full-time.
And without full-time investment, the theater was going to go away.”
As the Emery’s first true investors, Gordon and Manchise have high hopes for the venue extending all the way to its seventh story. Of course, the theater has made incredible progress in its transformation since the women walked through its doors four years ago. Their team of volunteers helped with cleaning, installing electricity, working with concrete, fixing the movie screen and auditorium seats and obtaining proper lighting.
While The Requiem Project has made it possible to host some recent buzz-worthy, high-profile performances at the theater — Exhale Dance Tribe, The National and Dean & Britta, to name a few — only the first two floors remain open to the public at this time. Installing bathrooms is No. 1 on the team’s to-do list, but even the smallest steps are complicated by the Emery’s unusual history.
“During construction, Mary Emery wanted the symphony to be there,” Manchise explains. “And at first, it wasn’t going to happen. So they started to build the auditorium anyway and midway through, the symphony decided that they would go — but only if the Emery could hold their audience size.” Consequently, an amendment was made to the building midway through construction, which makes it difficult for Emery revival architects John Senhauser and Westlake Reed Leskosky to make significant alterations.
Additionally, the auditorium’s acoustically pure interior can’t be altered in any way. The Requiem Project has had to be extremely creative in order to lay the floor plans out in ways that won’t damage the building’s value in any way.
But wait — there’s more. Due to the building’s change of use, rules that typically wouldn’t apply to such a historic building still stand. “So getting [the building] able to meet contemporary code is something that we’re required to do, but there are many steps along the way to get there,” Manchise says. “We can’t be grandfathered into anything because of what happened in that change of usage.”
Gordon and Manchise can’t praise the architects’ dedication to the Emery enough. Having them take on the project Gordon explains has “let the programming, which is Tina and I, say what we vision. And let the experts design that and price it out so we can start to say, ‘This is concrete.’ A full art center is a vision; an architect drawing it out is a plan. It was a huge investment really on [the architects’] part, and their plans were just extraordinary.”
So, to answer the question on everyone’s minds —“When will the Emery finally be finished?”— the short answer is that no one can say for certain just yet. Gordon and Manchise are choosing to focus on getting over one small hurdle at a time in order to reach the final vision. There are several ways to get involved and hurry along the process, however. Simply donating money for bathrooms and buying tickets to upcoming events can make all the difference. If you’re interested in being a little more hands-on, however, The Requiem Project is always open to new volunteers. Tasks range “from ushering, cleaning and assembling programs to ticketing, phone operation and media support.” Email volunteers@EmeryTheatre.com to lend your support in restoring an integral piece of Cincinnati’s cultural history.
“The theater comes with a mission statement, which is that it really can only be used for educational, civic and artistic purposes,” Gordon says, referring to Mary Emery’s initial vision for the theater. “So a company had to match that mission. And I think that also can tie to finding the right company for the space. It couldn’t go to the House of Blues. So it wasn’t just about people who loved music, it was for people who loved the mission.”
Luckily, Cincinnati’s arts community has received two women with the vision, determination, knowledge and passion to pick that mission up, dust it off and hang it from the Emery’s walls once again.
For more information on the EMERY THEATRE’s history and upcoming events, visit emerytheatre.com.