Once on the brink of being demolished, the Mohawk Theatre barely escaped the fate of other theatres in the city of North Adams when the community said, simply: "No!"
When word spread that the theatre was considered useless and out of date and the property up for sale and possible demolition to make way for something more modern, many members of the North Adams community approached Mayor John Barrett and asked what could be done, was there a way to save it, and maybe even return it to a central place in the life of the community?
The Mayor consulted structural engineers, urban development experts and, some say, even his crystal ball to see what role an old movie theatre could play in a revitalized North Adams. He was warned that it would be a major project, expensive, and even if the theatre was given a new lease on life, and very popular, it might always be a money losing proposition. But he came up with a strategy to deal with that issue. Pay as you go. The old movie house would be rehabilitated, but it would have no mortgage.
But most people also thought it could be the one project that could relight up a faded downtown. He decided to save it for the enjoyment of people of North Adams, past, present and future. The first and most important step was securing some cash to buy the property which he was able to convince the WalMart Corporation to kick in. Most large developments in a community are asked to give something back to the community as a way of mitigating the negative impacts they impose on its infrastructure. This was their way of making their impact on downtown more palatable.
In his most recent inaugural address Mayor John Barrett III once again affirmed that the renovation of the Mohawk Theater remains a top priority of his administration. He characterized the Mohawk Theater as a majestic theater that is part of North Adams' history.
The Mohawk Theater opened its doors to the public on November 5, 1938. Part of the E.M. Loew chain, this theater was designed by Mowll and Rand of Boston and featured an art-deco interior with Native American motifs. The theater is located in the heart of the downtown on Main Street in the City of North Adams. The original single-balcony theater boasted a seating capacity of 1,200 along with a beautiful twenty-five foot wide proscenium. The theater was built as a movie house without any significant stage area or fly loft in which to present live performances. It is the last large-screen theater in North Berkshire County, and one of the few late art-deco style theaters remaining in the nation. The majority of theaters from this period have been demolished or converted to other uses. Although the Mohawk Theater has deteriorated and shows signs of extensive wear, the building is still structurally sound, and the original design and decor have not been altered.
The theater, commonly known as The Mohawk, operated until the mid-1980's. Its long history of showing first-run movies, along with its traditional Saturday afternoon matinees, provided years of enjoyment for the public. During the 1980's, the focus of the Loew Corporation shifted to the more contemporary multiplex cinemas which had gained huge popularity across the country. The large single-screen theaters such as The Mohawk were no longer in vogue due to this shift in the industry, and necessary improvements were not completed. In 1987, the building was sold to a private investor who reopened the theater periodically for movies and occasional concerts. However, the needed capital improvements to the building's infrastructure proved too overwhelming, and the theater closed its doors for good in 1991.
North Adams was very fortunate in that it once was proud to have three local movie theaters. Along with The Mohawk, The Richmond and Paramount theaters were also located in the heart of the downtown. In fact, the E.M. Loew Theater Corp. was successfully operating the Richmond Theater in the city two years before the Mohawk opened its doors. Both the Richmond and Paramount theaters would eventually discontinue operations. The former fell victim to the urban renewal wrecking ball that became so popular in the late 1960's, and the latter went out of business and the space was transformed for other retail uses. The Mohawk is the last historical gem from the art deco movie house era, and efforts have begun to save it from destruction.
The City of North Adams, in partnership with local non-profits during the early 1990s but more recently on its own, has continued to work on the rehabilitation of -- and ultimately the complete renovation of -- the Mohawk Theater. In December 1992 financial assistance provided by the City of North Adams repaired the deteriorated roof. In 1998, additional grant funding was secured through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a feasibility study on the theater's restoration. This thorough study was completed by the Chicago-based firm Daniel P. Coffeey & Associates, Ltd. The report confirmed what everyone had hoped: that the building was structurally sound, and that it was feasible to rehabilitate it within the confines of the existing building footprint. However, the report revealed major deficiencies, with all of the theater's mechanical systems (plumbing, heating, electrical, etc.) needing to be replaced. The study put forth various rudimentary schemes for seating layouts and improved public spaces.
The City of North Adams then secured additional grant funding from the State Department of Housing & Community Development (DHCD). Through its Downtown Revitalization Program, the theater's marquee, which overhangs Main Street, was completely restored at a cost of approximately $75,000. Major painting and rewiring, including over 700 new bulb replacements and a multitude of new strip-lighting, were updated throughout. Mayor Barrett presided over a 'light-up' ceremony in May 1999 that was well-attended by City officials, business leaders and the general public. The restored marquee creates a beautiful and colorful spectacle, particularly at night, and is a tangible reminder of the benefits that a fully renovated theater will provide to the downtown.
Another $50,000 was earmarked for the preliminary architectural and engineering plans for the theater, picking up where the earlier Coffeey study had left off. A Northampton-based firm, Thomas Douglass & Associates, completed the preliminary architectural design and engineering work. Various options were presented to City officials and some color photos of the proposed restoration are included throughout this website. These photos reveal the retention of the art deco Native American motifs that are scattered among the walls and ceilings throughout the theater. This funding was provided by the Mass. Development Finance Agency in April 2000 and was also used to create this website.
Another challenging aspect of the project centered on site control. Although the theater is thought of as being one building, it actually encompasses two separate buildings which, over time, became separately owned. The main part of the theater with its seating is located in the rear parcel. The marquee and entry lobby are located in a different building which fronts on Main Street. The City regained ownership to the rear portion in 1996. Realizing that total site control would be needed to garner future financial resources for the renovation phase, the City was successful in acquiring the remaining Main Street piece in July 2002, thereby putting the site control issue to rest.
Future programming efforts will dictate the type of facility The Mohawk will become. The traditional movie house component will most assuredly remain and feature its Saturday afternoon matinee which was once very popular with families and children. Other new programming elements though, such as live plays, concerts, and recitals, and as a forum for debates, ceremonies, and other community-based events, will be incorporated as feasible. The City's hope is that a new facility will attract diverse groups of interests and reinvigorate the downtown with outstanding performances and a wide spectrum of high quality programs.
Phase I of the Mohawk Theater Restoration Project is now underway. The City of North Adams encourages you to help be a part of this magnificent restoration and to share in the renaissance that has transformed and hopefully will continue to transform the City for years to come.