Forty-seven years since it closed and just over 25 years since it was saved from the wrecking ball, the historic Dunbar Theater has moved a few steps closer to its return to a position of prominence in Wichita’s African-American community.
Since it was purchased 10 years ago by local non-profit POWER CDC, the exterior of the building has been renovated, but the inside remained just an empty shell. Following several stagnant years without any improvements beyond the brightly painted outside murals, some physical work is once again underway on the project.
This time, since the work is inside, it may not be very obvious to the community. Recently, the board of directors of POWER CDC and, its advisory board for the renovation project, “proudly” announced:
In March, the inspection and removal of outdated plumbing lines, and video scoping of an existing sewer line was completed.
This month, the demolition of existing concrete footings and replacement of approximately 1200 sq ft of concrete flooring inside the original theater seating area will be completed.
The boards have selected LK Architecture of Wichita to prepare the schematic designs for Phase 1 of the project. This work should be completed by fall 2020.
In addition, the organization is working with a team from the Advance Kansas program at Butler Community College to help develop fundraising ideas and concepts for the renovation project.
While it’s a small move that barely makes a dent in the total breadth of the first phase of the renovation project, it’s a positive step forward for the project that had been stagnant for more than a year.
Darren Muci, the renovation project manager, says neither he nor the boards were pleased with a hold that came about when they discovered some structural surprises a year ago when they were about to start work on the flooring and plumbing removal.
Surprises aren’t that unusual with the renovation of older buildings but without an existing set of plans for the building, the parties involved had to get engineers involved, plus the City of Wichita and the State Historic Preservation Organization (SHPO).
SHPO has a say in every aspect of the renovation work because the building is on the National Historic Registry. The City of Wichita is involved because they’ve committed nearly $900,000 in Community Development Block Grant Funds to the renovation project.
“It did not make us happy that we were on hold for much of last year, but we recognize that working with the City of Wichita and Kansas SHPO was a requirement,” stressed Muci. “Certainly they are going to dot I’s and cross T’s, so we have to do the very same.”
The announced work is all part of Phase One of the project which includes the renovation of the existing theater, the addition of a new two-story lobby and entrance on the northeast side of the building and a small addition on the west side of the building to enlarge the stage. The lobby will likely house a concession stand, bathrooms, and a small office space.
Phase Two and Three will make the Dunbar more of a social complex. Phase Two adds a two-story black box theatre to the northwest end of the existing building. The added theatre, anticipated to hold 200 or more people, will make available space for community meetings, shows, and event rentals. Phase Three will add buildings to the south with the potential to house office spaces, a cafe, gallery, and education center
An initial estimate for completing Phase One of the project is $5 million. Minus the city’s investment, that leaves the board with $4 million to raise. Muci says the group would have hoped to have secured a major funder by now for the initial phase of the project, but so far, no luck.
“Once we have some credible plans, are taking bold steps, and know how much the project is likely going to cost, maybe we’ll be able to secure some serious financial supporters.
Certainly, there will be opportunities for the community to support the project. Existing opportunities to donate include joining their Dollar a Week campaign, or purchasing Dunbar Theatre apparel or buttons. Of course monetary donates are always accepted and appreciated.
Dunbar swag can be purchased at POWER CDC offices, 1802 N. Hydraulic, Wichita.
The Dunbar Theatre was once the heart of Wichita’s Black community. Opened in 1941 and nestled in the McAdams neighborhood, it anchored a commercial corner and gathering place where everyone could feel welcome in a segregated time. With the removal of segregation, and more theatre options available for Blacks, revenue entered into decline.
Former city council member and chair of the advisory board, Lavonta Williams, recalls fond memories experiencing the theater firsthand.
“It came from a time when 9th and Cleveland was a very thriving community. It could play the same role as it did in the past. We did watch movies and we did have organizations that used it for important meetings – the possibilities are endless.”