In 21st century: The Hippodrome Theater, now 107 years old, is up for sale again. Tribune-Star file/Austen Leake
In 21st century: The Hippodrome Theater, now 107 years old, is up for sale again. Tribune-Star file/Austen Leake
The sounds of laughter, foot-tapping and applause emerged from crowds inside the Hippodrome Theatre a century ago.

Similar reactions could fill the historic downtown Terre Haute building again. At least, that's the hope of its current owners and a preservationist.

The Indianapolis-based owners of the Hippodrome have put the 107-year-old structure at 727 Ohio St. up for sale. Its real estate listing touts the Hippodrome's proximity to the new downtown convention center — located one block north of the theater on Wabash Avenue — as well as multiple parking facilities, Hulman Center and the Indiana State University campus. Construction on the convention center is scheduled to be completed by April.

It's possible a theater built for early 20th-century vaudeville shows could find a niche in a downtown district, once convention-goers start coming to town.

The Hippodrome could serve as a venue for entertainment activities that appeal to convention-goers, beyond the events inside the convention center itself, said Tommy Kleckner, director of the western regional office of Indiana Landmarks. Another historic venue, the 1922-era Indiana Theatre, sits one block west of the Hippodrome and has the same potential, Kleckner said.

"The Hippodrome and Indiana Theatre can provide that gathering space, paired with the convention center," Kleckner speculated Wednesday.

Noted Austrian theater architect John Eberson designed the two buildings, and both are on the National Register of Historic Places. The 28,064-square-foot Hippodrome opened in 1915, crafted by Eberson in a more traditional theater style, common in Europe, Kleckner explained. Seven years later, the Indiana Theatre opened with a more ornate look covering 31,646 square feet, one of the earliest examples of Eberson's "atmospheric" theater creations. Eberson designed nearly 100 such theaters across the U.S. and Canada.

The 100th anniversary of the Indiana Theatre's opening on Jan. 28, 1922, is weeks away. Terre Haute businessman and philanthropist Greg Gibson bought the theater in August for $212,599 "as an opportunity to keep this historic building in the hands of someone in tune with the best interests of the community," he said. Gibson bought The Indiana to protect it and hadn't made any plans for its use. Still, the positive changes downtown were clearly on his mind.

"Downtown is continuing to grow and develop, and it's becoming increasingly more important to continue this progress by ensuring that our buildings and businesses align with the city's tourism initiatives," Gibson said in August. "Although I have no immediate plans for the theater, I hope to make sure that it can complement these efforts."

As for the Hippodrome, it's owned by Ryan and Ashley Petty of Indianapolis. They purchased the property in January 2020 from the Hippodrome's longtime occupants, the Terre Haute Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, for $100,000, according to the state's Indiana Gateway database. Two years later, the owners — officially Hippodrome LLC — have the theater on the market, they confirmed by email last week. The real estate listing describes the Hippodrome as a "sports and entertainment building," usable as-is or with "adaptive reuse."

It's attracted attention, Ashley Petty said.

"We've had a considerable amount of interest in the Hippodrome and are really trying to find the right buyer to preserve the history and continue growth and redevelopment of downtown Terre Haute," Ashley Petty said in an email to the Tribune-Star. She didn't elaborate on any changes made to the Hippodrome since the couple bought it two years ago, or their reasons for putting it up for sale, with a listed price of $500,000.

Kleckner hopes a new owner would use the Hippodrome as a performing arts venue in an intimate setting.

"I hope whatever new use it has, that it retains that [intimate] experience," Kleckner said.

The Scottish Rite organization used the Hippodrome's 625-seat lower concourse and stage for reunions, theatrical performances, officer installations and memorial services for members from 1956 to 2020. Originally, the theater featured 1,441 seats as Hauteans packed it for vaudeville variety shows from 1915 through 1929. After sitting idle for a year, the Hippodrome reopened as home to the Community Theatre of Terre Haute organization, a run that lasted through much of the 1930s and '40s, according to Vigo County historian Mike McCormick. It later served as a movie venue as the Wabash Theatre, before the Scottish Rite's six-decade ownership began.

The Vigo County Historical Museum's first-floor Main Street exhibit features some relics from the Hippodrome's heyday — a ticket hopper, theater seats and a spotlight. Some other items are kept in storage, museum curator Suzy Quick said Wednesday.

Those mementos toast a building and stage once graced by legendary performers of a bygone era like Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Al Jolson and Bob Hope. The possibility that the Hippodrome could find a purpose alongside new downtown structures in the 2020s — a century after its heyday in the "roaring" 1920s — is intriguing. Federal and state grants could help new owners fund renovations, Kleckner said.

"I think it really has the potential to enhance the convention experience those convention-goers have," Kleckner said.
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