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Florence's former O'Dowd, Carolina Theater in line for renovation, restoration
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Florence's former O'Dowd, Carolina Theater in line for renovation, restoration

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FLORENCE, S.C. — It's highly unlikely anyone alive remembers when it wasn't there, and it's equally unlikely anyone takes much notice of it today — though it remains and is a survivor.

And it's about to get a second act, or maybe a third act — fourth act?

"It's been through more renovations than we thought," Florence Assistant City Manager Clint Moore said.

The more demolition crews dig into Florence's historic downtown theater — once the O'Dowd and then the Carolina — the more city officials learn of renovations and redesigns of which they were unaware, said Moore, who is overseeing the project for Florence.

"Had an interior fire in the mid-1900s," Moore said. "There were renovations. This is not the only makeover it has been through."

Demolition crews have been in the building for several weeks removing asbestos-containing gypsum wall board and exposing structural members that will be key to how quickly the building can be restored, how it can be restored and how much it will cost to restore.

Florence has owned the theater for several years.

"It started to deteriorate, and we bought it to take the necessary measures to preserve it," Moore said. "We got it at a good time where there wasn't a lot of damage from water infiltration from the roof. We held on to it anticipating some use out of it."

All that was lacking was finding the right person to come along and rehabilitate the building.

"Knowing and seeing what has happened in all municipalities in South Carolina and the Southeast, we've seen successful reuses of them — either as a music venue or reinventing it as theater," Moore said.

It turned out that the city might just have to be the right person if it wants to restore the venue.

"What we found ever since we bought, people would come in and look at it and it was to the point where it wasn't feasible for someone to come in and rehabilitate — it was cost prohibitive," Moore said.

When the city acquired the old Florence Pharmacy building next door, a world of possibilities opened up for the city and the old theater.

"For us to be truly successful, it needed another component to it," Moore said. "Often you see restaurants, Art Trail Gallery — something to activate the space when there is not a concert or movie showing.

"When we were able to purchase the pharmacy next to it, that's really what triggered the 'Hey, we have the infrastructure needed to bring something special downtown,'" Moore said.

Tentative plans call for opening the theater up into the pharmacy building with an eye on making part of its future use an events venue for weddings and such.

The auditorium portion of it has a real stage — there wasn't just a screen on the wall — and that will make it someplace the city can have performances, he said.

There is also the possibility of movies, though not first-run movies.

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That would give Florence five downtown stages — three at the PAC, one at FLT and the old theater — all with unique attributes and seating capabilities, he said.

The old theater, he said, would seat approximately 500 people.

All of that is in the theater's future. For the present, Moore said there are about as many questions as answers.

The building will have to be brought up to code, though it is close to that now, Moore said.

An elevator will have to be installed to give handicapped visitors access to the balcony and the bathrooms, which are on the mezzanine — another challenge.

The theater, when built, was art-deco in design, something still visible above the street-level facade, and the mezzanine remains mostly unchanged from that design − except for the wallpaper in the bathrooms that screams 1960s.

The curved plaster work, Moore said, is something the city wants to keep because the skill sets that allowed it to be done in the art-deco era aren't that common in the 21st century.

Moore said there also are plans to replace the theater's marquee.

The city has also kept some items that were in the building that obviously predated a more recent renovation — including some wall sconces.

But specifics of the renovation plans will have to wait until the city knows exactly what it has to work with.

Moore said there doesn't appear to be any structural lumber in the building — possibly a result of the fire.

"There are some serious steel beams in that building. It's pretty amazing," he said. The roof structure also appears to have been replaced and updated following the fire.

A structural engineer is scheduled to inspect the building this week and, perhaps, explain some more of the building's history at the same time, Moore said.

Original plans with the theater were to move quickly on the renovation and restoration, but COVID happened and slowed all that down.

"Some developers showed interest," Moore said. "I think our schedule will probably hit the nail on the head. It allows us to slow down a little bit, do some selective demolition and take a look at the building. Form that goal for our new design and create a product that will be celebrator of the story but embrace modern times."

Once construction starts, it will last 12 to 14 months, which would put its completion date sometime in the spring of 2022, he said.

The city's plan is to lease the buildings to an operator and then make its money back through lease payments and hospitality tax, Moore said.

"The ripple effect these types of facilities have on other businesses — they come and eat, they spend an afternoon downtown — it's not just that single location they're coming for," he said.

The city is also working with the state to get historic preservation grants, he said.

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FLORENCE, S.C. -- In coordination with McLeod Health, Florence 1 Schools teachers will be able to receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Friday during the vaccine clinic at Darlington Raceway. Phase 1B vaccinations will officially open on March 8 but McLeod has set aside slots specifically for Florence 1 teachers at this clinic. Appointments are required for this event.

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