By Kaycee Lagarde, pnj.com
The Imogene Theatre may be more than 100 years old, but its life is far from over.
Tucked in the heart of downtown Milton, the charming brick building is a slice of Santa Rosa County’s history, once home to vaudeville shows, silent films, opera and community balls and events — and the Santa Rosa Historical Society plans to keep the theater active for years to come.
After surviving neglect, hurricane damage and near-destruction in a 2009 fire, the theater has since been resurrected to its former glory through hundreds of thousands of dollars in reconstruction and renovations.
With most upgrades completed, the Historical Society is looking ahead at the future of the theater and the local history museum housed within it, hoping to further establish the space as a vital part of the community.
“We want it to be just full of life and be part of revitalizing downtown Milton,” said Vernon Compton, president of the Santa Rosa Historical Society.
To help achieve this goal, Compton said the Historical Society is working on an agreement with RE Development Inc. to manage and promote events for the Imogene Theatre. RE Development put on the Southern Rock All-Star Jam at the theater earlier this month.
Today, the Imogene Theatre hosts everything from local productions and variety shows to wedding receptions and business meetings, also showcasing the area’s past in the Santa Rosa Museum of Local History.
Hardwood floors, ornate crown molding and a wraparound balcony overlooking the vaudeville-style stage give the Imogene an undeniable charm, but burn marks remain on sections of the floor — a reminder of how far the theater has come.
The Historical Society, which purchased and restored the building in the late 1980s after it was nearly in ruins, is now working on the finishing touches of the most recent renovations, most of which were funded by a $100,000 grant from the Pensacola Bay Area IMPACT 100 organization.
A new lighting system, movie projector and screen, theater seating and blackout shades for daytime productions have already been added through the grant, and the Historical Society is now shifting its focus to the museum and archival room.
Though small, the one-room museum offers a colorful glimpse into Santa Rosa County’s history, with artifacts ranging from Native American arrowheads to farming tools highlighting agriculture in the area.
Working with the University of West Florida Historic Trust, the Historical Society has also updated its archival room to properly store historic documents and photos, with plans to create digital versions of the records and make them more accessible for public research.
One of the final steps in the works for the museum is to install a film to the front windows, which will protect documents and artifacts from being damaged by direct sunlight, heat and ultraviolet light.
Ross Pristera, a historic preservationist with UWF Historic Trust, said it’s rare to see a historic building like the Imogene still in use, especially as a multi-purpose theater, rental space and museum.
“They’re kind of the prize of the cities they’re in,” Pristera said. “There’s a lot of effort other places to restore and use them, so to have one here is beneficial.”
The theater also plays a central role in the city of Milton’s master plan, said Mayor Wesley Meiss, a member and former president of the Santa Rosa Historical Society.
Milton’s master plan focuses on enhancing the riverfront and surrounding area, along with economic development and connectivity between the village of Bagdad and downtown Milton.
“The Imogene is going to be a major focal point of the master plan and the success of downtown Milton,” Meiss said. “And it all comes down to getting people in the theater and getting them to Milton.”
After seeing the Imogene as a charred shell of a building after the 2009 fire, Meiss said he’s proud of how far it’s come and excited to see what the future holds for the theater and the entire downtown area.
“It’s an icon in the city of Milton,” Meiss said. “It’s a very unique building, and it’s definitely a part of our unique culture and the history of the city.”
More about the Imogene:
For information and updates about events at the Imogene Theatre, visit http://www.facebook.com/SantaRosaHistoricalSociety. For rental information, call 516-0338.
The Santa Rosa Museum of Local History, 6866 Caroline St. in Milton, is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the first and third Friday of each month.