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Trying to save the Grand

Time running short for Steubenville’s last remaining downtown theater

April 25, 2010
By DAVE GOSSETT, Staff writer

STEUBENVILLE - The last remaining downtown movie theater is the center of a last-minute attempt to save the building and restore the past grandeur the Grand Theater on South Fourth Street was known for during part of the past century.

One of several theaters that once highlighted the entertainment business in the downtown business district, the Grand Theater is in danger of falling victim to the wrecking ball after years of neglect and disrepair.

A broken skylight continues to let rain, snow and roof debris fall onto the stage area. Seats in the main auditorium have been removed or broken over the years. And the large silver screen has collapsed onto the front of the extensive wooden stage.

Article Photos

CELLULOID HISTORY — Bishop Al Fenner, owner of the Grand Theater, examines one of the movie reels he discovered in the Grand Theater after the building was donated to the Shepherd’s Walk Church by Derek Ferguson in 2006. - Dave Gossett

Steubenville housing officials began to investigate the structural conditions after a neighboring property owner filed a complaint on Oct. 6, 2008.

"We have been working with the property owner since 2008. We are still working with the owner, but we do need to see steps taken to properly secure the building and to deal with the property issues or we will have to seek a demolition of the structure," reported Anthony Bodo, assistant urban projects director and building official.

Bodo asked Judge Daniel Spahn of Steubenville Municipal Court to give Bishop Al Fenner of the Shepherd's Walk Church until Sept. 15.

Fenner and assorted local residents hope to use that extension to cover any holes in the theater roof and to start a fundraising campaign for a major restoration project.

Spahn ordered Fenner to cover the skylight and return to court on June 15 to report on his work.

"My wife and I have decided we will not take this theater down. We have had a vision for this theater since day one. I know this theater can be saved. In addition to the ministry I have also worked construction for 50 years and I know we can make this happen. My wife and I believe in giving and helping others. And when we need help it pops up in front of you," cited Fenner.

"I believe this theater could be the biggest draw the city could have. This city needs something to pull people into the downtown," said Fenner, who noted he was involved in a theater restoration project in his native state of Michigan.

Scott Dressel, chairman of the city's Historical Landmarks Commission and a veteran of several house restoration projects, also has embraced the idea of saving the Grand Theater.

"We want to create a nonprofit organization called the Steubenville Historic Landmarks Foundation and start seeking monetary donations. The roof repair will cost between $200,000 and $300,000 to complete, but that will end the water damage. So our first order of business is getting that much done so we can start drying it out and cleaning out the mess. With the roof done we can then take our time on the interior," said Dressel.

"There was a foundation formed in Pittsburgh and its first project was Station Square. After that success they continued with other projects. This would be the foundation's first project, and I see us doing others after this as well as being involved with other restorations throughout Steubenville," said Dressel.

"I am working on setting up the nonprofit and once that is done we will set up an account for donations. If someone really wants to send them now they can be sent to 'Grand Donations' in care of the Steubenville Revitalization Group, P.O. Box 602, Steubenville, OH 43952. We are going to need some major donations, but we also hope to receive monetary donations from the many people who remember the Grand Theater and want to see it restored," Dressel noted.

Rob Gribben, a member of the Steubenville Revitalization Committee and vice president of the Grae-Con Construction Co., inspected the Grand last week.

"There is a lot of work to be done in the building, and we are probably looking at a project that would cost between $4 million and $5 million. But our company is currently working on a theater restoration project in Marietta and this is something we would certainly look at," Gribben said.

"It would be a shame to lose a building like this. I know it is in bad shape now, but it would be exciting to see it restored and to save an historical building in the downtown business area. It could be one of the biggest things to happen downtown for some time," said Gribben.

Jerry Barilla, president of the SRG, already has started seeking support for the restoration project.

"I was on the Regis Philbin website and sent a message telling him about this theater and the fact Dean Martin probably visited the theater in his youth. I would hope he could talk about our efforts on his program. And I plan on talking to Deana Martin when she is in Steubenville for the Dean Martin Festival in June. Maybe she could talk to her father's friends about donating to the project in her father's name and memory," Barilla commented.

"Sometimes we are too quick to tear down the old historical buildings because of their poor conditions. It would be nice to save a piece of Steubenville's history for a change. I have never lost a project once I started a restoration. I don't want to start now," Dressel stated.

(Gossett can be contacted at

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