Spotlight on Steubenville: A grand piece of history

AmyLynn Miller

Steubenville Columnist

Once upon a time, the Grand Theater for the Performing Arts, located on South Fourth Street in downtown Steubenville, was a popular attraction. When it opened in 1924, the theater hosted vaudeville acts and showed silent films accompanied by live organ music. It continued to operate as a movie theater up until the early 1980s.

Out of the five theaters that operated in Steubenville during the 20th century, the Grand is the last one standing, making it an important piece of the town’s history.

After it closed in the 1980s, the beautiful building was left to fall into disrepair. A leaky roof and skylight caused immense water damage on the lovely plaster dome in the main theater, and the original 1925 brickwork façade was covered with white aluminum panels.

In 2010, however, the Steubenville Historic Landmarks Foundation bought the building. The Grand Theater Restoration Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit made up entirely of volunteers, has been working to restore the Grand to its former glory ever since. The end goal is to be able to reopen the Grand as a movie and performing arts theater and event center.

Thanks to the work of the Restoration Project, the outside appearance of the theater building now harkens back to its heydays. The aluminum panels have been removed and the brick repainted, the boarded-up windows have been replaced, the trim has been redone in green to imitate the original color, the marble flooring in the entryway has been cleaned to a polish and the old tarnished metal on the doors has been replaced. Overall, an impressive improvement has been wrought on the outside of the building.

But the renovations don’t stop there. Inside, the theater has a main stage, a balcony for seating and two event ballrooms that are all either in the middle of being restored or are on the list of things to renovate. The inside lobby has been redone in a more modern style that pays homage to the theater’s past, and an office space has been converted into a temporary memorabilia museum for Steubenville’s entertainment history.

A few years ago, the theater’s original organ that provided the soundtrack during silent films was donated back to the Grand. The Restoration Project hosted workshop days for volunteers to help restore and reconstruct the organ — all 1,000 or so of its pieces — almost weekly up until recently when the threat of COVID-19 brought a temporary end to the group work days.

As a nonprofit, the Grand Theater Restoration Project relies on fundraisers, donations and federal grants. Though low funding and COVID-19 has caused the restoration to slow down in recent months, a few volunteers, working one at a time, continue to push on. The electrical in one of the ballrooms and the organ restoration are two projects that continue to move forward despite these uncertain times.

Though not currently open due to COVID-19, the Grand Theater will often open its museum and lobby during First Fridays on Fourth, sometimes to hold short shows or scenes put on for the public.

I cannot say enough that the Grand is a beautiful building and a wonderful piece of history that will hopefully be preserved for a long time to come. I’ve only touched on everything that has been accomplished in it in the past 10 years. The Grand Theater has come a long way in its restoration thanks to the labor of love on the part of many Steubenville citizens who give their time and talent to this project.

You can learn more about the Grand Theater and see pictures of it at www.historicsteubenville.org, or follow them on Facebook at Grand Theater for the Performing Arts – Steubenville Ohio.