When Bart Lawrence bought the Princess Theater on Fifth Street South with intentions to bring the faded theater back to life, he knew he was jumping off the deep end.
“I always said getting into it that you could spend $1 million and still have plenty left to do,” said the 32-year-old Army veteran.
Lawrence isn”t quite a million deep, but the theater has come a long way since he took over.
It”s also come a long way, for better or worse, since it was built in the 1920s. Lawrence remembers visiting Steve”s Cafe with his grandfather when he was young, then hanging out at the Coffee Shop as a teen in the mid-1990s.
After a stint in the Army, the Columbus High graduate returned home, retired, and began working at the Princess when retirement got boring. He started looking for a place to open his own restaurant and the only suitable spot for the right price was the theater.
Since then, Lawrence has been working non-stop.
How”s the theater renovation business these days?
We”ve spent a whole lot of time and money on it since (purchasing the building), trying to save it structurally and reputation-wise.
Main Street Columbus has been working with me lately trying to find grants and loan programs and we”re trying just a little at a time, but also trying to do a whole bunch in the next couple of months. We”re hoping some of the loan programs work out so we can finish the new roof, heating and cooling for the theater. Mainly focusing on the theater. Trying to revitalize the marquee. I think it would be great for downtown and the business to have the marquee with all the neon replaced and working again in original condition.
Where did you start?
Up to this point we”ve mainly been focusing on the front. It”s a pretty daunting task. The building as a whole, from 1924 has had many different owners with a lot of different ideas and have done a lot of different things. So every project, we bring in professionals and they kind of have to undo some things that have happened.
What is your vision for the entire facility?
I”ve almost got the front of the house just how I like it. We”re doing really well. I can”t complain at all. Business has been very good and getting better all the time with the restaurant. I opened a pool hall over here just over a year ago. I put in the middle way (an open doorway in the wall between the restaurant and the pool hall) to bring everything together.
We”ve done little things, decorating and fixing up here and there.
The main project right now is to try to get the theater usable year round. I”d love to show second-run or older movies. Maybe do some things in conjunction with the different celebrations like Tennessee Williams or Pilgrimage. Just try to have something that”s such an integral part of downtown, because it”s really an icon of downtown, be able to be a part of all the things that go on in Columbus.
Has the restaurant funded all of your work? Are you breaking even or making a profit?
I”ve done everything 100 percent off of what we”ve made here. We”ve had no grants, no donations, nothing. I feel very blessed business has been good enough to constantly push it forward. And reinvesting everything back in the building has just made business better.
Is the theater in use at all now?
People are constantly asking me to use it because the Trotter is rented out non-stop. And I”m not comfortable letting people I don”t know well use it because I”m afraid they wouldn”t be getting what they think they”re going to get because it”s just not that nice. It”s been neglected. It”s been abused.
We”re getting ready to totally redo the sprinkler systems to cover the safety issue. And now aesthetically we”ll start ramping up.
I don”t have the aspiration to do what they”ve done with The Ritz in West Point. My pockets aren”t that deep. I”m really just trying to get it to a good workable level and maybe over the course of 10-15 years it could get back to how it once was.
We”ve had wedding receptions. We”ve had family reunions and private parties and I would love to be able to do that in the future.
I”d love to get my money”s worth and I want other people to feel like they”re getting theirs, too.
What work has been done thus far?
We”ve done a lot of infrastructure work. Improving wiring, improving the roof in a lot of areas, heating and cooling. Almost all of the roof has been replaced, which is crucial. It”s been allowed to go far too long. And there”s really just one section left we have to do.
We”ve spent several thousand dollars on industrial waste bills just throwing decades of accumulated garbage and junk away. And there”s still so much to do.
It seems like in almost every aspect its been neglected maintenance-wise.
We”re repainting, furniture, new fixtures.
The next big step is a new roof for the theater and to improve the heating and cooling. Right now there is heating and air conditioning in the theater but it”s really not enough in the summer and winter.
We want new heating and cooling and to revitalize the marquee. And a lot of smaller things like renovating all the windows. All of these things that really help protect the building. When you start doing things on the inside like putting down new carpet it doesn”t make sense if the building is going to leak when it rains.
After that I feel we”ve got a good foundation on the outside and the building will be preserved and we can start working on the inside of the theater.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.