By CARL GREEN
Collinsville – In 1918, there was nothing else like it. Collinsville area miners had joined forces and pooled their money to create a three-story grand auditorium that would serve the community for many decades.
Now, with the Miner’s Institute – commonly known as Miner’s Theatre – suffering from years of decline, union and community leaders are working to renovate it and use it again.
Union workers have already provided preliminary demolition work and are ready to do more – if funding can be found.
Tim Evans, president of IBEW Local 309, told the Southwestern Illinois Building & Construction Trades Council at its February meeting that the push is on to re-open the theater in time for its 100th anniversary.
“We went and looked at it,” he said. “Structurally, it’s all pretty sound, but it’s going to need updating electrically, HVAC, plumbing – all the mechanicals are going to have to be redone.”
The non-profit Miner’s Institute Foundation is leading the drive and working with city leaders to find funding. Evans and the Building Trades Council are trying to get the AFL-CIO Building Investment Trust (BIT) interested in the project. The Trust builds pension funds by investing in projects that provide union jobs and help build union communities.
“It’s probably going to cost a little bit of money to do this,” Evans said. “If we can get BIT interested in it, that would be great, because then we’d know that the project’s going to go well.
“It’d be a good job, and a lot of recognition to an historic building for labor.”
Dale Stewart, executive secretary-treasurer of the Council is checking to see if AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka – who came up from the United Mine Workers – might be willing to come and see it for himself.
“If we can get the president of the AFL-CIO to come in, I’m sure everybody would want to get involved with it as far as they can, “ Stewart told the Council.
“The building is in really good shape, compared to a lot of places,” he said. “It’s got a lot of history there, and it’s on three levels. There are a lot of great things we could do with it.”
INITIAL WORK UNDER WAY
Leah Joyce, president of the Foundation, said Laborers members have performed substantial preliminary demolition work. She said the next big step would be updating the electric service to allow additional projects, such as renovating the restrooms to meet ADA standards.
“We really appreciate that,” she said. “That’s really important to us. It’s going to allow the future work to proceed.”
J.F. Electric of Edwardsville is serving as contractor on the electrical work.
Other community groups have provided small grants and volunteer help cleaning and organizing, but it takes skilled labor to get the bigger jobs done, she said.
“This building was built by our miners, and it’s just really appropriate that unions restore it and re-open it,” she said.
ONCE A UNION HALL
Evans said he would like to see the union history of the building commemorated. “That used to be a union hall – they had their meetings there,” he said.
When he looked inside, he was surprised at the theater’s capacity.
“It’s about 800 seats,” he said. “I didn’t realize how big it was. You drive by the thing every day, but once you go inside, you realize how big this place is.”
It originally had about 1,000 seats, but theater seats in those days were smaller.
According to the Miner’s Institute Foundation history of the theater, Mine Workers locals built the theater starting in 1916 by withholding 1 percent of their wages. It opened Dec. 28, 1918, and was used for vaudeville shows, movies, high school plays, graduations and UMW conventions.
Miner’s locals kept offices and meeting rooms on the second floors, and the third floor was a ballroom often used for community events.
Community groups also used the upper floors, and the space at one point housed the original city library.
The building was a movie theater from 1969 until it closed in 1984.
The Miner’s Institute Foundation was formed to preserve the theater, and the group operated it until 2008. The Collinsville Area Recreation District then began a major renovation, but the work was canceled in 2011 and the theater was returned to the Foundation.
The theater was placed on the National Register of Historic Place in 1985.
Joyce said after the restoration, the theater would be used in much the same way as its original purpose, with plays, concerts and other events in the main auditorium, community group meetings and offices on the second floor.
The ballroom space on the third floor will be rented out for weddings, parties and other private functions to help provide operating revenue.
“We want this to be a community building,” she said.
The group has been watching closely the experiences of Edwardsville with its restored downtown theater, the Wildey, which has movies and concerts on the main floor and rents out space upstairs.