Lodge at Alexandria's Theatre L'Homme Dieu faces uncertain future
The theatre's board closes building because of safety concerns; former board members call for more study.
ALEXANDRIA — Exciting news is happening at Theatre L’Homme Dieu.
James Pence, president of the board of directors and Nicole Mulder, executive and artistic director, shared that the theater is in the process of working on a 20-year master plan for programming, staffing and facilities.
“We are in a great position right now,” said Mulder. “And our future is bright and exciting.”
Part of the master plan, which is receiving some pushback, involves replacing the building known as “the lodge.”
The lodge was built in 1924-25. Mulder said it is old and it has history.
In a press release written by Pence, he said that in 2018, the board and staff implemented a facilities maintenance plan.
“Thanks to expert advice, careful planning and the financial support of the community, we have – to date – invested $350,000 in necessary infrastructure improvements, including an overhaul of the water drainage systems, landscaping, installation of an irrigation system and opening of the popular new patio, which opened June 2022,” said Pence.
Pence also said that the team of contractors, engineers and surveyors also studied the theatre building to investigate structural, code and safety issues to help guide them in repairs and eventual renovation.
“This building was built in 1960 and is showing its age,” he said.
Since 2019, this same team along with staff, he said, have also monitored the three oldest buildings for safety concerns. The buildings include the lodge and two cottages. The lodge, which Mulder said was abandoned in 1949, stood vacant for a number of years until the theatre acquired it in 1959-60.
For the last 60 years, those three buildings have been used for housing, rehearsals and various gatherings.
Mulder said the buildings, especially the lodge, has meaning to all involved with Theatre L’Homme Dieu, but that the lodge has been deemed unsafe. The plaster ceiling in the only working bathroom in the lodge has fallen and staff members noticed shifting in the interior vertical beams and exterior walls, said Pence.
Throughout this past summer, the staff and the construction team has been monitoring the building for any additional changes.
In September, some changes were noted and Pence said the structural engineer was contacted and asked to prepare a formal opinion on safety and structural issues in the lodge. Pence said the engineer was not asked to give an estimate for cost to bring the current structure into compliance, but he was asked to focus on safety.
Mulder said the building was closed and remains closed to this day. She noted that if the ceiling, which is very heavy, would have fallen on the sink, it would have smashed it. She couldn’t imagine what would have happened if someone had been in the lodge when that part of the ceiling fell.
Pence said that the commissioned opinion from the engineer concluded that the lodge was structurally unstable and a recommendation was made to close the building due to safety concerns.
Mulder said the board of directors voted unanimously to deconstruct the lodge and several key stakeholders were notified. She said a diverse cross section of people were notified and that there has been some pushback and some misunderstandings.
A group of 10 former board members want a second architectural examination done on the lodge by someone with experience in historic buildings. In a commentary to be printed in the Nov. 2 Echo Press, they described the lodge as part of the rich history of Alexandria and the lakes region and that a "rush to action" is unnecessary and unfortunate.
Mulder said that she has been proud of the board and the work they have put into the decision. She said they have been thoughtful and deliberate and didn’t vote immediately on the decision after hearing from the engineer. Under Pence’s advice, she said they waited for two weeks so they could have more time to think about the decision and weigh the options.
Mulder said a roll call vote was taken and it was a unanimous vote.
“I was really proud to be in that room and to watch our board,” said Mulder.
The original vote was to have the building taken down by Dec. 31. However, there is a pause on the action of the vote, said Mulder. Pence said they would like to hear more from the public and after a series of public gathering sessions, they will either confirm the vote or modify it.
The first gathering is set for Sunday, Nov. 6, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Theatre L’Homme Dieu.
There will be time for the public to inspect the outside of the lodge and view into the interior. There will be a 30-minute public forum on the patio to hear views on the master plan and theater facilities, said Pence.
Attendees are asked to dress for the weather and to bring their own chairs as the theater’s chairs and tables have been stored for the winter.
“Our goal is to create safe, multi-functional, state-of-the-art facilities to complement our creative programming,” said Pence in his press release. “We will continue to showcase the rich history of TLHD and highlight the natural beauty of our surroundings. We need spaces that are accessible to all, with improved operation systems for optimal arts experiences. The current condition of facilities is an impediment to our future.”