Today, in Church Hill, the sounds of revitalization echo within the walls of the former East End Theatre. Kathryn and Matt Wiley, 30 and 29, hope to infuse the historic building they purchased in 2004 with the history of their own growing family all the while making it a post for community outreach.
Opened in 1938, the East End Theatre, at 418 N. 25th St., originally seated 850 and became one of the few white-owned theaters in Richmond that blacks could attend.
Charles Alexander, 72, who has owned Esquire Tailors in Church Hill since 1963, recalls attending the East End regularly. He sits next to a steam press and reminisces: "I was born a few blocks from that theater. It was nice."
Shop manager Dickie Davis, 70, remembers a defining moment in the theater's history: "When I left for the Navy in '54, blacks weren't able to attend the theater. When I came home on leave in '56, they were."
It was then that Wydell "Big Small" Fox, 75, began to visit the theater regularly. Although he says he sat before the screen more nights than he can recall, he laughs heartily at a select few. "We were young then," he says. "I was from uptown. At times, somebody would give you a hard time for coming into their neighborhood if you weren't from there. So when I had a date, I'd take her somewhere else."
The Wileys are turning the building into a sprawling eco-friendly residence, complete with a custom woodworking mill shop, darkroom facilities and a public space. They will maintain the original balcony and create a rooftop view of St. John's Church, where they were married. It's a vision they've nurtured since they were newlyweds. Kathryn, a social documentary photographer, was then a graduate student in Maine. On quiet nights with Matt, she says, "We'd sit by the wood-stove and dream."
They considered other structures and other cities. But ultimately they knew where they wanted to live: "People plant roots in Church Hill," says Kathryn, a Richmond native. When the couple found the theater, she says, "It was exactly what we wanted. The measurements we'd drawn were the measurements of the space."
When talking to Kathryn, you sense that serendipity pays them regular visits. The couple traveled to Kazakhstan to adopt their first child, Abel, now 2. Within hours of completing adoption procedures for the boy, Kathryn discovered she was pregnant. Seven months later, Abel had a brother, Siras, and the new parents had a busy renovation business to run.
But their complementary skills and interests seem to ease the pace of parenting as they move toward big goals. Kathryn claims she is the visionary, who, once done brainstorming ideas, moves on to the next project. Matt, artisan and owner of Retro Renovations, then takes over with a reverence for history and the expertise of a contemporary builder.
They are not blind to obstacles on the road ahead. When they bought the building, what remained of the roof dangled dangerously. A fire had nearly destroyed the balcony. But Kathryn says firmly, "Neither of us has ever been daunted."
Next-door neighbor Rob Rhoden watches the transformation with hope. "Matt and Kathryn have the ability to see things for what they can become," he says. "That carries them through their roughest weeks." And, he adds, "this will be their biggest challenge." Though Rhoden acknowledges that the revitalized theater's particular role "remains to be seen," he believes the Wileys will "bring a sense of health to the community."
Other residents ask, Why not return the East End to its past as a movie theater? "Look at the fact that the Byrd needs government assistance," suggests Kathryn.
And to a woman who is a photographer because she wants to effect "social change," using part of the space to assist others is integral to the project's success. Right now, their ideas on how to accomplish that goal are vague Kathryn is considering mentoring programs, skills-training classes and "atypical" commercial ventures.
But she emphasizes their commitment to the neighborhood and residents they love. "We are community-minded," she says. "In Church Hill, there is a symbiotic relationship of neighbors, and we love that."
In the coming year, they plan to renovate the public space, complete Matt's mill, finish the roof and begin work on the facade. Considering the years of debris, those goals might seem lofty to any other young family.
But the Wileys move ahead, certain that their work will mark another sort of heyday for the East End Theatre and for Church Hill. "We put a lot of work into what we do," Kathryn says. "It's about making a difference." Lifting her younger son, she says resolutely, "And we want this to be a gathering place." S