LSU students pitch in to help with Lincoln Theater restoration

Paint chips, dirt clods and rodent droppings litter the former office of Baton Rouge civil rights leader the Rev. T.J. Jemison, which sits vacant on the second floor of the once-vibrant Lincoln Theater in Old South Baton Rouge.

Humid air enters the building through shattered windows, indiscriminately weathering historic artifacts and junk alike inside several offices. A peruse through the dilapidated rooms Friday afternoon revealed such mementos as a key to the city of Dallas and several of Jemison’s framed college degrees, along with random items such as a spare key to a Lexus, signed checks and a nearly 20-year-old job application.

LSU student volunteers began making an inventory of the items Friday, setting aside relics worthy of preservation, collecting salvageable furniture to give to Goodwill and, in general, clearing out the building in preparation for an EPA-mandated cleanup, the next step of many left before the Lincoln Theater can ever sell out a prime-time performance.

Students with Volunteer LSU, an LSU Campus Life organization, carried heavy desks, dusty computer monitors and wooden chairs down from the second floor and into a storage area where a crew from Goodwill will come to pick up the items soon, said Josh Dean, assistant director of LSU Campus Life.

The service project marked the first time the organization has come to the old theater, located on Myrtle Walk Avenue near Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive. Dean said they hope to return to do further work at some point.

Morgan Matchett, Volunteer LSU’s student director and a senior who grew up in Baton Rouge, said many students were enthusiastic about the project, especially incoming freshman from outside the city.

“They want to learn about the place they’ll be living and help preserve it,” Matchett said.

Organizers close to the theater transformation effort said they are pleased by the progress students have made, but note the project badly needs additional resources before it can move forward much further.

“Nothing is easy on this project,” said Susannah Bing, director of finance and economic development for the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, one of several agencies working to revive the neighborhood between downtown and LSU.

Within the next few weeks, Bing said, a renovation-prep company will begin removing lead-ridden pipes, as well as mold and asbestos in some parts of the structure. Once that’s done, funding already mostly secured will pay for installation of a new heating, ventilation and cooling system, a crucial improvement needed to keep the building from falling back into a deteriorated state.

From there, the future is hazy, Bing said.

Expiring tax credits and project delays have widened the funding gap ever since the Louisiana Black History Hall of Fame purchased the run-down theater for $325,000 in 2009.

The three-phase project still lacks an additional $3 million to match its funding needs, most of which won’t be necessary until the third phase, said Brenda Perry Dunn, founder of the Louisiana Black History Hall of Fame and the Lincoln Theater Foundation Board.

The three phases include, respectively, the clean up of the structure, the restoration of the theater and the expansion of the theater and construction of the Louisiana Black History Hall of Fame next to the theater.

“We have to restore it, so we have to go through these phases,” Dunn said. “Once we restore it, the community can have its jewel back.”