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The wonder of the State Theater

On Second Avenue near Water Street lies one of downtown’s most iconic and most treasured buildings. Looming over the rest of the block with its distinguishable peak, its four white pillars, its decorative fenestration. Facing Second Avenue with its incongruous modern red front, its bricked over windows, its shining off-center marquee that speaks more to its 1950s remodel than its much earlier history.

A photo of this building from that much earlier history sits on my desk — same peak, same columns, same detailing. Windows no longer bricked over, the bright shining Maltz Theater marquee touting Talking Pictures to all those who come downtown. Cars pulled nose-side in underneath its large overhang, an image of a different time.

When I was in high school, my first job was at the other movie theater, the Royal Knight, which was owned by the same company. The State Theater always loomed in my imagination: mysterious, majestic, each corner full of stories and questions. The site that had once been an opera house in Alpena’s lumber age, one of the “handsomest and finest theatres in the state,” that could seat up to 900, that would later burn. A building that had then become a one-screen theater showing silent films, then talking pictures. A building, remodeled in the 1950s, with upstairs balcony and plasterwork and decorate busts carved into the walls. What stories those busts could tell. What times those walls had seen.

Alpena’s lumber barons and newest settlers and ladies dressed in silk, the sounds of opera and orchestras bouncing off those walls. Moving pictures, full of color and sound, kids in the balconies throwing jujubees. And now, walking through and wondering what lies beneath its new walls that have made it the three-cinema theater it is today: the stage, the dressing rooms, the balconies still there, covered up and built over, but there.

Perhaps no other building in our town contains so much history and wonder that the State Theater does. The mere mention of it brings memories, impressions to mind. Seeing a movie, working there, walking by it, seeing its marquee’s lights lit up at night, illuminating our downtown. Using it as a backdrop for engagement photos, wedding photos, senior photos. And perhaps like me, soaking up every bit of its history I can get, wishing I could go back in time for just one evening to see it as an opera house or a one-theater movie house.

This feeling, this attachment towards old buildings is more than just nostalgia for the past or a yearning for a different time. Our historic buildings — our built heritage — connect our community to its past in a visible, physical way. They have the power to provoke questions about our own history. Why would we have an opera house? What does its architecture say about the ideals of that time? How has that building’s use changed over time — and what does that say about our community, our economy, our culture?

“It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future,” said William Murtagh, the first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places.

We will never know what it was like to step into the Maltz Opera House or to see it burn down; we will never know what it was like to see the first talking picture premiered. Some of us may remember what it was like when it was a one-cinema movie house; many of us, like me, have only known it as a three-cinema theater. But the building is still here, bearing physical marks of its own history and changes, inspiring us to understand that history, allowing us to engage in a conversation with our past.

Historic buildings are a gift to us from our past, reminding us of the history, the stories, and the people that have come before us and shaped the place that we know it to be. It is our responsibility to ensure that they are preserved so that that conversation can continue into our shared future, whatever that future may hold.

Anne Gentry graduated from Brown University with a degree in comparative literature and has studied in Italy and South Australia. She is currently executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority.