Landmark Livingston theater slated for demolition

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comAugust 21, 2013 

— A landmark building that stood tall in the heart of downtown Livingston since the 1940s will be torn down, the city council voted unanimously at its meeting Tuesday.

The Livingston Court Theater, built in 1945, will be demolished within the next few months, according to city officials. The building had been vacant since it closed in 1977, and was purchased by the city in 2001 for $120,000.

However, the condition of the historic building quickly began to deteriorate.

"The ceiling is old and caving in, and pigeons are living in there," said Councilman Gurpal Samra. "It's starting to become a health and safety issue."

The city once planned to restore the building, Samra said, but estimated repairs would cost anywhere from $6 to $7 million. That's an unlikely prospect for a city facing a $150,000 shortfall in its proposed budget.

"There's just not enough money available to rebuild it," Samra said.

Marge McFadden, 91, who's lived in Livingston for 60 years, said it will be sad to see a piece of the city's history be demolished.

"I hate to see it destroyed. I'm really going to feel bad when they take it down and that empty spot is there," McFadden said. "It's going to be a shock when you drive down the street and see it disappeared."

McFadden serves as vice chairman of the Livingston Court Theater Committee, which was formed about 10 years ago to raise funds for the renovation plans. Despite the group's efforts, they weren't able to come up with enough money.

"There isn't any other choice when it's in the millions like that," said McFadden, who recalled taking her four sons to the theater. "It's impossible for the county to raise that kind of money."

Livingston City Manager Jose Ramirez said the city tried a number of things to keep the building viable, including applying for grant money for repairs.

"I think the city and the community did everything they could to try to save this building," Ramirez said.

But the loss of the theater won't hamper the city's effort to bring performing arts to downtown, Ramirez said.

"Our hope is to one day build a cultural arts center there that will encompass theater activities and performing arts," he said.

There are a few vacant lots next door to the theater, and the city is looking for investors and funding to put together a project, Ramirez said. A team of architects will visit the area early next week to discuss forming a cultural arts district in downtown Livingston, he added.

JoAnn Mires, 74, chairperson of the Livingston Court Theater Committee, said she was disappointed the building couldn't be saved, but understood the reasons why.

"It was discussed with us at our meeting, so it wasn't a surprise to us," Mires said. "I understand with the economy the way it is, it was a difficult thing to do."

Mires said the building would have been demolished during the restoration process anyway.

"As we got into it, we knew that it would need to be torn down," she said. "But I'm hoping in the future we can replace the building."

The money raised by the committee will now be donated to student scholarships, Mires said. She would not disclose the total amount raised.

The cost to demolish the building is not to exceed $30,000, according to city documents.

The council voted to enter into a demolition agreement with Jim Brisco Enterprises, Inc., a Merced-based general contractor.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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