Renovating the 40th Street Theatre is a lot like participating in an archaeological dig.
Owner John Hargiss and his longtime girlfriend, Mary Thorsteinson, have been picking away at the 110-year-old building on the corner of 40th and Hamilton Streets since he bought it in January 2013, much as scientists chip away at ancient excavation sites.
He pulled away plaster 10 inches thick and found an elderly black public telephone attached to the wall. They found a secret basement room underneath a ramp to the backstage area and discovered that it held the theater’s original light fixtures, among other treasures.
Hargiss, 55, originally thought renovating the vaudeville house-turned-movie theater could be done within a year of the purchase, but their discoveries — combined with a pay-as-you-go philosophy and scouring secondhand stores and other sources for reclaimed materials — set them back a couple of years. They envisioned offering the space to individuals and community groups as a site for music shows, plays, meetings, weddings and other events.
A few people have already used it, they say, but now the theater is ready for its close-up.
“It’s time for the old girl to be open,” said Thorsteinson, 43.
This weekend, the Brigit St. Brigit Theatre became the first local group to stage a play in the renovated building. The 23-year-old classical theater troupe on Friday night opened the drama “Sive,” which will be performed at the theater through the first week in March.
Director Cathy Kurz said other events will be held there in conjunction with “Sive,” which is part of the group’s annual Irish festival.
Kurz is thrilled with the new stage.
“I’ve had a crush on that space ever since I saw it,” she said.
Part of Hargiss and Thorsteinson’s motivation in opening the theater is to help improve the surrounding neighborhood, which has a number of abandoned buildings and an elevated crime rate. The World-Herald’s Omaha Crime Report shows that the area has had two violent crimes for every 1,000 residents in the past 12 weeks — the second-highest rate among 81 neighborhoods.
Area residents and members of nearby neighborhood associations praise the couple’s efforts, saying any attempt to clean up buildings and increase the area’s retail profile is a positive sign.
Problems with owners who don’t maintain their properties and the people attracted to those structures are the root cause of the neighborhood’s challenges, said Sean Creswell, a former officer of the Walnut Hill Neighborhood Association who has lived at 41st Street and Lafayette Avenue for nine years.
Hargiss purchased the 35,000-square-foot building along with several nearby structures for a little more than $110,000, or about $2.50 a square foot. He moved his instrument shop there from Benson, where, he said, he was tiring of the party atmosphere.
He’s happy with the move. He and Thorsteinson live behind the stage in an apartment, and he said it’s wonderful: “It has been the most peaceful place.”
And, he said, despite those who disparage the neighborhood, his business has increased 40 percent since he moved there. He builds and repairs all varieties of stringed instruments. He also teaches others his craft.
Hargiss opened an antiques store next to the music shop in June 2013, and the theater was the next phase.
He knew that the building most recently had been a carpet shop and that it had housed Martin’s Pastry from the mid-1950s to 1977. From the outside it looked as though it had also housed a theater, but he didn’t know that for sure until he saw it on 1950s footage in a video from streetcar enthusiast Richard Orr.
The building was a mess when Hargiss first saw it. When he got around to starting on the theater, he said, his renovation budget was low: about $7,000 — and most of that went to dumpsters. He salvaged what he could at the site, then turned to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore and other places for repurposed goods.
The couple’s aim was to make the space look as it did from its opening in 1916 to 1951, when it closed. Hargiss thinks that will spark memories in older Omahans, people in their 80s and 90s.
“They’d say ‘I met my wife in that theater right after the war,’ ” he said.
Hargiss and Thorsteinson cleaned up the original tile in the entryway and obtained wrought-iron outside gates from the defunct Mister C’s Steak House in north Omaha. Inside, they used a couple of doors from the Metz Mansion, a century-old residence near 36th Street and Dewey Avenue that caught fire last year and was torn down.
Movable audience chairs came from the Florence Home in north Omaha, a now-gone nursing home built in the 1890s. Because Hargiss and Thorsteinson want to use the large room for other purposes, they didn’t want to reinstall permanent theater seats.
All told, they used 80 percent reclaimed materials in the renovation and bartered for about 80 percent of the work they didn’t do themselves.
“I like to call John the Fred Sanford of the neighborhood,” Creswell said, comparing Hargiss to the junk dealer in the 1970s television sitcom “Sanford and Son.” “He can reuse anything. He’s good at that.”
Some interesting things happened in the renovation process — events the couple think are no coincidence.
To paint several areas, for instance, Thorsteinson got marked-down “mistints” — paint that was mixed incorrectly — from home improvement stores. She painted one large wall a turquoise green, and when she pulled some trim off the opposite wall, it revealed the exact same shade from an earlier era.
The couple also found some white wood columns they thought would look cool at the entry to the stage area, but they had no idea whether they were the right size for the space. When they installed them, they were such a good fit that it was apparent they’d been there before.
That didn’t always happen, though. Hargiss said there were plenty of times he would measure and remeasure and was confident in his numbers, only to find that the item wouldn’t fit.
“This building has a sense of humor,” Thorsteinson said.
For Kurz, Brigit St. Brigit’s founding artistic director, the building also carries a sense of those who have gone before. From the moment she stepped inside, she said, she had the feeling it was something special.
“I sat in that big, empty hall, and I could feel every person who ever played there,” she said. “You can smell the greasepaint, you can smell the sawdust. I just felt like I had come home.”
Kurz hopes Brigit St. Brigit will return to the 40th Street Theatre, but she’s not yet planning to make it a permanent home.
Hargiss and Thorsteinson say they’re reluctant to secure a full-time tenant at the beginning of their venture. They hope to attract other theater groups along with a variety of events — nothing is off limits.
So far they’ve hosted neighborhood association meetings, and a group from Joslyn Castle has used the space for a ballroom dance session. Performers also have rehearsed there, including local actor Jill Anderson and the Hot Tail Honeys burlesque troupe. An Omaha band, Blue House, recorded an album there.
Area business people and residential neighbors are pleased to have the enterprising couple in the area. A partner in the Olympia Cycle shop across the street, for instance, said he thinks everyone will benefit when people come to the theater for functions.
“We’re for it — that’s for sure,” said Larry Thorsen, whose bike shop has been on 40th Street for 45 years. “Any reputable business that’s bringing people in to the location, that’s going to help. It adds a good feeling to the neighborhood.”
In addition to running a thriving music shop, Thorsen said, Hargiss also has actively worked to remove trash from the neighborhood and report people who hang out on nearby streets, perhaps with criminal intent. He worked to get a nearby apartment building owner to move a large, always overflowing dumpster from the front of his property on Hamilton Street to the back, where no one could see it. “He said ‘They wouldn’t put up with that in west Omaha. Why should we put up with it here?’ ” Thorsen said.
That’s typical Hargiss, said Creswell, who has known him since the storekeeper’s Benson days.
“John’s a good guy to have around to do that kind of stuff. He’s the ultimate micromanager,” Creswell said. “If he wants to get something done, it’s gonna get done that day, and he’s gonna show you how to do it his way.”
Creswell thinks the Hamilton Street corridor is perfect for the ventures Hargiss and Thorsteinson have launched and hopes the area is poised for success. He compared it to Benson in the 1990s or the Blackstone area 10 years ago.
As a longtime history buff and preservationist, Hargiss is just happy to be working on an interesting project that will add to the city’s rich arts and entertainment landscape. He’s been interested in restoring old items such as instruments and buildings since his modest upbringing in southern Missouri. When you’re poor, he said, you learn to do things with whatever you have.
Now, he said, he’s doing exactly what he wants to do.
“The more I was around old stuff, the more I knew just where I belonged.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1267, firstname.lastname@example.org