Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts


Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts

The Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts opened in downtown Hammond, Louisiana on September 1, 1928, the same year that Hammond Junior College became Southeastern Louisiana College. Originally designed for the presentation of motion pictures, vaudeville acts, and local theatrical productions, the Columbia was the largest theater in Hammond and featured the first theatrical organ and talking pictures.

The Columbia became the center for entertainment during the depression and war years of the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1950s and 1960s the theater needed to be renovated. This was an era in which downtown businesses were suffering due to the development of regional malls and subdivisions. Although a sincere and competent effort was made in the late 1970s by businessman Wiley Sharp to remodel and reopen the theater, the massive challenges proved overwhelming for one individual. By the early 1980s, the Columbia was vacant, leaking, and infested with termites. In the early 1990s, a delegation of local citizens proposed leveling the Columbia, and replacing it with a parking lot.

Another group of citizens, led by Marguerite Walter, Director of the Hammond Downtown Development District, worked to save the Columbia. She enlisted Harriet Vogt, Director of Fanfare at Southeastern Louisiana University (SLU), who guided the University to join the League of Historic American Theaters, and to seek their advice. The League, which stressed the importance of saving old theaters, asked Mr. Killis Almond of San Antonio, Texas to visit Hammond. Mr. Almond, a past president of the League, with an international reputation as an architect of historic theaters, urged the group to save the Columbia, and to do it quickly, as the roof was in danger of collapsing.

Walter and Vogt worked with local attorney Rodney Cashe to register the Columbia as a non-profit 501 (c) (3). The group also sought funding from Representative Bob Livingston of Louisiana and state Senator John Hainkel. Ms. Walter wrote several successful grants for state capital outlay funding, the first to repair the roof. The City of Hammond joined in by leasing the building and providing insurance coverage.

By 1994 First Guaranty Bank owned the structure and offered to donate it to the Downtown Development District (DDD) under the condition that it be converted back to a performance space. The DDD selected Holly and Smith Architects to conduct a restoration study and design plans for the renovation. At this point, Senator Hainkel met with SLU President Sally Clausen and her staff along with Mr. Stan Dameron of First Guaranty Bank. Senator Hainkel proposed turning the theater over to SLU for operation after the restoration. Working together, the DDD, City of Hammond, and Southeastern Louisiana University secured $4,900,000 in capital outlay funds to restore the Columbia and to also purchase the adjacent old JC Penney building. This would provide additional space for dressing rooms, rehearsal space, and offices.

To expand the lobby space and secure a loading dock, retired Judge Leon Ford approached H.P. Forbes, owner of the old Firestone Tire building located on the east side of the Columbia. Mr. Forbes donated a portion of the building, and Representative Livingston arranged a federal grant to purchase and renovate the entire building. Upon completion of the restoration, in Spring 2001, Southeastern Louisiana University received ownership from the DDD.

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