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Historic Theater Case Study - Von Lee Theatre

Von Lee Theatre
Von Lee Theatre
Bloomington, IN

By Karine Huys
Graduate Student
IUPUI Department of History

517 E. Kirkwood Ave. has had a long and sometimes contentious history in Bloomington, Indiana. The Ritz Theatre opened in the early 1920s, but during the Great Depression the owner was forced to close. The majority of the ‘30s and ‘40s saw the structure used as Peterson’s Market, a grocery story. When the grocery store closed, Vonderschmidt Enterprises purchased the structure and reopened it as a movie theatre. The Von Lee Theatre opened on Friday, April 22, 1949.

Harry Vonderschmidt opened the theatre primarily to benefit the students at Indiana University. It originally was only open at night and on Sundays during the academic year. The theatre’s proximity to campus, right outside the campus gate, lent itself well to this plan.

In 1955 Vonderschmidt passed away and his family continued to run his business, which included several others theatres throughout Indiana. In the 1960s, Indiana University was heavily involved in the programming at the theatre. The Summer Session Dean selected the summer shows to coordinate with summer school programming at the University.

However, a new chapter opened for the Theatre in 1976 when it was purchased by the national syndicate, Kerasotes Theatres. In the early 1980s, Kerasotes commissioned two major additions to the building in order to make it more user-friendly. Once the two projects were complete the theatre had three screens that each seated about three hundred people.

For more than two decades Kerasotes operated the Von Lee as an artistic theatre in the community. Then in June of 2000, Kerasotes closed the theatre, sighting a major sewer construction project on Kirkwood Avenue, which diminished business. Around this same time the Bloomington Historic Preservation Commission (the Commission) began considering a local historic designation for the structure, which can be accomplished without the consent of the owner. Kerasotes never asked for this designation.

A study done by the Commission found five points that allowed for the historic designation of the Theatre:

  • The structure exemplified the cultural, political, economic, social and historic heritage of the community
  • The theater is the work of a designer whose individual work has significantly influenced the development of the community
  • The structure is the work of a designer of such prominence that the building has gained value for the designer’s reputation
  • The structures unique location or physical characteristics represent an established and familiar visual feature of a neighborhood or city
  • The building exemplifies the building environment in an area of history characterized by a distinctive architectural style.

The Commission approved a local historic designation for the building, which meant that no structural work could be done to the Theatre without the Commission’s permission. At the time several of the Commission members believed that they were saving the Theatre from demolition by tagging it with the designation. It was suggested that Kerasotes had been intentionally neglecting the theatre so that its dilapidated condition could be used as a reason to close it.

In October 2001, most of the equipment and seating was removed from the Theatre in anticipation of being put up for sale. As part of the sales plan, Kerasotes placed a deed restriction on the property, keeping any new owner from showing movies; Kerasotes did not want the Von Lee to compete with the new mega-plex Kerasotes had built outside the downtown area. The structure was now encumbered with two restrictions that a possible new owner would have to deal with- the historic designation and the no-movie clause.

The Save the Von Lee Committee was established to reopen the Theatre in downtown Bloomington. After the closure of the theatre the group staged a popcorn boycott, refusing to purchase popcorn at the operating Kerasotes theatres. The intent of this boycott was to cut into the bottom line of the movie chain, as concessions are a large part of the profit made at movie theatres. Kerasotes never indicated whether or not the boycott affected their bottom line. Save the Von Lee also showed movies at the Von Lee – on the outside wall.

In 2002 Save the Von Lee hired a lawyer to research whether Kerasotes could impose the no-movie clause on the theatre. In September 2003 the group officially filed an anti-trust suit against Kerasotes. The suit questioned the fairness of the restriction on the theatre’s deed. They contended that Kerasotes was maintaining a monopoly by not allowing other theatres to operate in the City.

While testifying in the anti-trust suit, the owner of Kerasotes announced that the no-movie restriction would be limited to 15 years. Originally the restriction had carried no time frame. In February 2004 the judge in the anti-trust suit rendered a verdict, ruling in favor of Kerasotes. The judge stated that the plaintiffs failed to prove that they were being overcharged by Kerasotes because of diminished local competition. She also stated that “the loss of a downtown theater is outweighed by the benefits of modern seating, superior sound systems, convenient parking and expanded movie options” at the newer Kerasotes theaters. The judge also very plainly stated that she saw nothing unreasonable or unlawful about Kerasotes protecting their investments in their other properties in the city. This slammed a door in the face of Save the Von Lee as they had been hoping to pursue the matter in a higher court.

While all of this was going on, the building was actually sold to a new owner, an investment company from Indianapolis (Artemis LLC). One of the company partners had family members that attended Indiana University and he was interested in opening an upscale sports bar in Bloomington. In December 2003 the Monroe County Alcoholic Beverage Board considered an alcohol permit for the property. Indiana University became involved with the property again at this point, opposing to the new bar because of its proximity to the campus, citing growing alcohol problems among the student population. The Save the Von Lee group is also opposed to the liquor license because they are still fighting for a movie theatre to return to the structure.

After little progress for almost a year, Artemis LLC was granted permission to hold a liquor license in March of 2004. One of the owners stated that he had never expected to encounter so much resistance to his idea for a sports bar. At that point, the building had been closed and deteriorating for four years.

For an unknown reason, Artemis LLC never began remodeling the building into a sports bar. Instead, in September 2005, the building was sold to Bloomington Kirkwood LLC. The liquor license was sold to another restaurant that was preparing to open in Bloomington. The building had now been closed for five years and when the Commission went on a tour with the new owner, a liability waiver had to be signed by everyone entering the structure.

With new ownership, the Commission was faced with another difficult choice. The historic designation meant that they had to give permission for any major work done to the structure. The structure had been closed for five years and the new owner was suggesting a redesign that was radically different from the original structure. In facing the question of the best adaptive reuse for the space, the Commission decided to grant the owners the permission needed to move forward with their plans.

517 E. Kirkwood will now be a multi-level structure with store fronts on the bottom level and University office space on the upper floors. Only a small portion of the original building will remain – the façade and the entrance. A replica of the original Theatre sign will also be placed on the new building

Von Lee Theater