By Mike McCormick
TERRE HAUTE — If you resided in Terre Haute between 1918 and 1959, you will remember the building on the southwest corner of Eighth and Wabash as The Liberty Theater.
If you lived in the city between 1960 and 1977, you may have called it, “The Grand Theater.”
If you were not cognizant of landmarks until 1979, you will remember the same building, without marquee or an entrance on Wabash Ave., as the press room for the Terre Haute Tribune-Star.
Regardless of the name assigned to the structure, it is no more. If present plans reach fruition, the lot upon which it has been situated for nearly 90 years will be occupied next year by the Terre Haute Children’s Museum and the Candlewood Suites extended-stay hotel.
When it opened on Sept. 13, 1918, the Liberty Theater was described as “a thing of beauty,” a “Temple of Amusement.”
Designed by Chicago architect James Edmund Oldaker Pridmore, the Liberty was built by Terre Haute Theaters Co., headed by Albert “Buck” Brentlinger, to accommodate vaudeville, cinema and legitimate theater.
Terre Haute has been favored over the years by the work of several nationally-renowned architects, including several from Chicago.
Solon Spencer Beman of Chicago, commissioned by George Pullman in the 1880s to establish a city for his railroad car employees, designed the U.S. Trust Co. building at 641 Wabash Ave. in 1903.
Two other Chicago architects, William Holabird and Martin Roche, are credited with creating the Terminal Arcade building at 820 Wabash Ave. in 1911 for the Terre Haute, Indianapolis & Eastern Traction Co.
Esteemed Austrian-born theater architect John Eberson of Chicago was responsible for the Hippodrome Theater, finished in February 1915, and the Indiana Theater, opened in late January 1922.
Both auditoriums were the inspiration of Theodore W. Barhydt, Jr., known as Terre Haute’s premier “Theater Builder.”
Fortunately, The Hippodrome and The Indiana survive and will co-host the Vigo County Historical Society’s Spring extravaganza, “Burlesque at the Hippodrome,” on Saturday.
There will be matinee and evening performances on stage at the Hippodrome, now known as the Scottish Rite Museum, at 727 Ohio St.
The evening spectacle will be succeeded by an After-Theater Gala at the Indiana Theater at Seventh and Ohio, accentuated by food, cash bar and the reverse raffle of a restored 1925 Model T Ford Coupe. Tickets can be purchased by calling (812) 235-9717.
Built more than three years after The Hippodrome opened, The Liberty — with an auditorium decorated in ivory and cream accentuated by embroidered blue draperies — accommodated 900 on the first level and 350 in multiple balconies.
Its leather upholstered opera house chairs were the finest in the city and the spacious aisles were lauded by opening night patrons. Adorned in mahogany and lavender, the lobby was illuminated by brass chandeliers with dangling crystal prisms. In some respects, accouterments at The Liberty surpassed those at The Hippodrome.
Before The Liberty was built, 729 Wabash Ave. was occupied by The Varieties, a vaudeville house owned by Barhydt on land leased from John McFall. Brentlinger negotiated a new lease with McFall and offered Barhydt $2,000 for the building.
Barhydt demanded $7,000. When Brentlinger refused, Barhydt razed The Varieties, eliminating competition for one year while Brentlinger was building a new theater. The Liberty was the result. Lamentably, it was architect Pridmore’s sole contribution to the Terre Haute landscape.
Born in England on July 18, 1864, J.E.O. Pridmore migrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1880, first locating in Minnesota. The Pridmores relocated to Chicago in 1883 so James could serve as an apprentice draftsman with a firm of architects.
By 1890, J.E.O. had his own office on Chicago’s south side. A decade later, he located in Edgewater, a small Chicago suburban community founded in 1880. He created three of his own residences in that community, two of which still exist.
Pridmore did not design many residences but specialized in apartment houses, churches and theaters.
Several theaters he designed in the Chicago area survived for many years. They included the Vic, Princess, Harding, Cort, Clark, Adelphi, Sheridan and Nortown.
Among his most spectacular creations was the Bush Temple of Music, built in 1901 at the northwest corner of Chicago Ave. and Clark St. It was the headquarters and showroom for the Bush & Gerts Piano Co.
The State Theater in Minneapolis, conceived by Pridmore, was deemed the nation’s most elaborate and technologically advanced concert hall when it opened on Feb. 5, 1921. Boasting the first artesian well-driven air conditioning system in Minneapolis, the theater’s original floor was all glass.
The State closed as a theater in 1958 and, until 1989, the building was occupied by a variety of tenants, including Jesus People Church. The City of Minneapolis purchased the block which included the State and subjected it to a 3-year $8.8 million renovation.
The refurbished State Theater is described as “breath-taking,” probably J.E.O. Pridmore’s most impressive theater surviving the 20st Century.
Pridmore was married twice. His first wife, Carole Lee, died in 1914. Two years later he wed May Blossom Hull, who was J.E.O.’s wife when he designed The Liberty in Terre Haute and the State in Minneapolis. They had two sons. Sadly, May died in 1925.
Early in his career, Pridmore earned a reputation for designing high class apartment houses in the metropolitan Chicago area. Remnants of some of those impressive works still survive.
Pridmore died at age 75 on Feb. 1, 1940