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'Heart for Hanover': Trio aims to remake Hanover Theater

The distressed façade of the Hanover Theater has been a presence in its borough’s downtown for years. In fact, the building has sat vacant for more than three decades.

Partial letters to a sign that once read "This Place Matters" — unrelated and predating the Black Lives Matter movement — still hang from the side of the former Hanover movie theater on Frederick Street.

Those wishing to restore the theater had all but lost hope, as it had gone through a number of buyers since closing in 1986 — several of whom planned to restore it but never did.

But now the historic landmark will finally see new life.

Handsome Cab owners Robert Godfrey and Andrew D'Agenais are under contract for the theater with McAllister Hotel apartments owner Jordan Ilyes and plan to reimagine it as a not-for-profit multi-use entertainment space.

Three local businessmen are planning to renovate the former Hanover Theater, located on Frederick Street in Hanover, Tuesday, June 30, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

"Our heart’s really in Hanover right now," Ilyes said, noting that the forward motion and momentum the community has seen recently will make for an exciting next couple of years.

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The theater, which has been under the care of an arts group for about 10 years, will be sold to the trio for $245,000 by November. They plan to renovate it for between $7 million and $10 million. They hope to raise the cash with the help of foundations and community organizations.

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They see it as a new anchor for Hanover akin to the Appell Performing Arts Center in downtown York City.

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Godfrey and D’Agenais had been visiting Hanover for another project with Ilyes — a restaurant they plan to open in the McAllister building — and the theater became a big topic of conversation, Godfrey said.

Ilyes has been involved in about 20 conversion projects for old buildings, and said he knew how important the theater was to downtown Hanover.

With Godfrey’s past involvement in the Dreamwrights theater, in York City, and the potential to not only restore the Hanover Theater but boost other businesses in the area, they decided to take on the project.

Hanover Theater is the latest project in a revitalization that has taken hold in Hanover within the past seven or eight years with the creation of its Main Street initiative.

That includes the McAllister Hotel apartments, which previously housed popular lunch spot The Hub, and Ikigai Coffee, which opened in its basement this June.

Use of old properties is exciting and brings vibrancy, said Justine Trucksess, executive director of Main Street Hanover.

"That project is probably the most-asked question I get when people ask what I do," she said of the theater.

The building has a lot of nostalgia associated with it, and over the years it has also become blighted, making this project especially important for the community, she said.

Historic photos line the walls of the Hanover Theater building front, showing parts of the original State Theater, which opened in 1928. Candy Island (pictured) was an early version the "snack bars" that have now become a staple of modern movie theaters.

Mindy Crawford remembers seeing her first movie there with her dad — "Mary Poppins" in 1964 — and seeing "Jaws" in 1975 on her first date. She can recall the original red velvet seats and elegant chandelier, though both are gone now.

Out-of-town theaters were not prominent until the mid-to-late 1970s, so it was the only theater around, said Crawford, executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania.

Godfrey said there's something special about the Hanover community and how people have rallied around the theater. He's seen a social media outpouring he has not seen for similar restorations or new projects in York.

Trucksess said fixing up the theater will bring more people in — especially with a large event space for functions such as proms, which Hanover Mayor SueAnn Whitman noted was something the town was missing.

"In Hanover, we don’t really have any place to have a big function like that," she said.

Restoring the theater will also preserve a historic landmark that's part of Hanover's historic district, a section of the borough added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

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The State Theater opened in 1928 before it was renamed the Hanover Theater in 1960. After its closure in 1986, the building changed hands several times, once with the intent of creating an antique mall.

An historic photo of the State Theater, which is now the Hanover Theater, in 1931, provided by Preservation Pennsylvania, c/o The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The more than 17,000-square-foot space was one of more than 80 theaters designed by prominent Philadelphia architect William H. Lee — who also designed The Majestic in Gettysburg.

The interior ornamental plasterwork was designed by Arthur Brounet, who was known for extravagant murals and paintings, and the Hanover Theater remains one of only two of his completed theaters still standing.

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For its resurgence, Godfrey said the venue will be more modern.

The theater and stage world are very different today from what they were in the 1980s, he said, so the plan is to make use of the historic architecture and maximize use of the space with movable cabaret seating, sofas or club chairs.

A movie theater alone would not be viable for a space that size, considering the required maintenance, he said.

"We want to make sure it’s done in a fashion that Hanover will appreciate it or use it for another 100 or so years," Godfrey said.

He and his partners are researching theaters with entertainment spaces in New York City; Palm Springs, California; and elsewhere, but plan to retain the Spanish Colonial Revival and Moderne architecture styles of the building.

The Hanover Theater, a historic movie theater in downtown Hanover, will be purchased and renovated beginning this fall.

Leveling the floor will be important, Godfrey said. A level beneath has green rooms and bathrooms, and a secondary basement will be a catacomb space with a natural spring.

Based on a feasibility study Preservation Pennsylvania did for potential buyers, the building is structurally sound and just needs to be brought up to modern code, Crawford said.

Before renovations can get started, the new owners need to raise the money — which they hope to do by partnering with foundations or community organizations.

But a crucial aspect to the project going forward is a parking garage, which is part of the sales agreement, Ilyes said. The borough is currently looking into a parking study.

Toward the end of the year, Godfrey said, he plans to throw a "dirt party" and welcome guests inside the raw space before construction.