Most Indy residents recognize the flatiron-style building on Indiana Avenue as the Walker Theatre, but few of us have glimpsed the interior of what was once the headquarters of Madam C.J. Walker’s wildly successful business. Soon, though, there will be many more opportunities to admire the major historical landmark from the inside as well. Just over two years ago, The Madam Walker Legacy Center teamed up with IUPUI to begin planning how the building could be put to better use in conjunction with the Legacy Center’s programming. The Lilly Endowment provided $15 million toward a major renovation of the theater and accompanying operational costs. Now, with the completion of just a few more finishing touches, the theater will soon be open to the public.
Adam Thies, associate vice president of capital planning at IUPUI, describes the Madam Walker Theatre pre-renovation as “a building on life support.” The historic landmark, which was headquarters to the Madam Walker Hair Care Manufacturing Company in addition to housing a drugstore, a beauty school and salon, a cafe, and of course, a theater, had few other amenities than the ones that existed when its doors were first opened in 1927, and lacked essentials like central heating and cooling. It had also fallen victim over the years to general disrepair like leaks, burst pipes, and peeling paint. Thies is overseeing the repairs on what will be an almost $15,000 project. Some of the changes are merely practical—for example, there are now plenty of restrooms to accommodate the theatre’s capacity, ramps lead into the theater for wheelchair access, and the tiny elevator was expanded and made to reach the ballroom on the top floor. But much of the work is breathing life back into the original stunning features of the building, like intricate hand-painted detailing, wood carvings decorating the stage, and a gorgeous auditorium ceiling made to resemble a night sky full of stars. Removing decades of dust, replacing light bulbs illuminating woodwork up near the top of the stage, and reupholstering every theater seat go a long way, too. “Madam Walker and the architects deserve the credit—we are grateful to those who conceived of the building. We just came in and polished what was already a great jewel,” says Thies.
The Walker Theatre is one of just a few remaining embers in the hearth of what was once nationally known as an “Indianapolis Harlem.” In the early 21st century, Indiana Avenue was surrounded by black neighborhoods spanning over 400 acres. Best known for its jazz scene, big names like Ella Fitzgerald, Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, and The Ink Spots were regulars on The Avenue, and the Madam Walker Theatre hosted numerous performances. Recently there has been a renewed interest in honoring the history of the area, which has been spurred on even more by the recovery of the theater as well as the programming that the Madame Walker Legacy Center is planning in order to take advantage of the space. Judith Thomas, executive director of the MWLC, is looking forward to the next phases: “For our 2020–2021 season, we will create programming bringing in national artists, authors, and performers while also celebrating our local talent and providing education access that will empower our community. We’re also creating a series focused on empowerment in the areas of entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and tech. There is also the Sarah Breedlove experience, which will feature video vignettes, slideshows, other educational material focused on the history of the legacy of Madam Walker and Indiana Avenue. And, the Indiana Avenue Cultural District is looking to bring Indy Jazz Fest back to Indiana Avenue. Imagine—every September, folks will know to head down to the avenue for jazz for years to come.”
While the biggest aspects of the work are completed, audiovisual components for the theatre, add-ons and improvements to the upstairs offices, and general polishing still remain before the grand opening, currently scheduled for June 10–14. But when it does reopen, the building will have a similar multi-use function to that of the ’20s and ’30s. The original “coffee pot lounge” area will still be a cozy gathering spot, now with storefront windows that face the avenue where solid walls stood before. Upstairs, offices have been revamped with conference rooms, event spaces, and classrooms for IUPUI students to gather in. And of course, the theater will reopen for events, with an extended stage, updated lighting, and refurbished seating. With these improvements and plans for a new Indiana Avenue segment of the Cultural Trail starting at the theater, Indy residents will be able to enjoy this beautiful public space in a whole new way.