HOLLADAY When Nolen Mendenhall entered the Villa Theater for the first time to look at what needed to be done to renovate it, he was surprised and delighted to smell popcorn.
The theater had been closed for more than a year and had extensive water damage. All the theater seats had been sold, so a huge open space was all that remained in the main theater area. However, with no electricity, it was dark, the big red curtains still covered the place where the screen had been, the murals on the walls were still there and it smelled like popcorn. The theater atmosphere remained.
Mendenhall, who had been asked by the theater's new owner, Hamid Adib, to come look at what it would require to renovate it, could suddenly imagine himself as a child once again running up and down the aisles terrorizing people at the movies on a Saturday afternoon.
Adib also has fond memories of taking his children to the theater and hopes, through the renovation, to allow others the same opportunity to relive their memories of it. He purchased the Villa Theater more than a year ago after hearing of the city's plans to demolish it. He had a great desire to preserve it.
"It's a landmark and has always been a landmark," he said. "When I got it, they were looking at demolishing it, but it's part of the heritage and is a treasure of the city. It's a link of old and new generations."
Adib couldn't stand the idea of such a historic landmark being destroyed, so he bought it with the intention to preserve it for the community's sake. The theater has been undergoing an extensive renovation for the past year to bring it up to seismic code, make mechanical upgrades, put in a new electrical system and repair water-damaged areas to prepare it for its new use as a rug gallery to display original Oriental, Persian and European rugs Adib sells.
Once the renovations are complete, Adib will move his business, Adib's Rug Gallery, which is just down the street from the theater, into the building. Patrons will be given the opportunity to not only relive their memories of it but also to experience the handcrafted rugs in Adib's store.
As such, he said the renovation work has been painstaking.
"Everyone involved realizes what a landmark this building is. Because of that, they don't want to shortcut on the preservation work. The plan is for the building that has been here since the 1940s to stay another several hundred years," Adib said.
So far, the project has cost well over a million dollars. Adib said the cost and time for the renovation have been three times as much as he originally estimated. Many times when the work crew opens something up, three hidden things to fix pop up. He said it would have cost less if he had built an entirely new building the same size as the Villa. However, he never considered that an option.
"Everything is not about money. Some things you just do because they're right. The theater is one of those," he said. "I'm glad to have preserved it, even with the cost."
He has made great effort to preserve the feeling of the theater for people such as Mendenhall, the architect for the project, and Richard Achter, the general contractor, to remember it from days past.
"As a small child I used to watch movies at the Villa. When I got the opportunity to work on the building, I couldn't turn it down, because it was too interesting," Achter said.
"I grew up in the Holladay area. When I was a young kid, they used to have Saturday matinees at the Villa. Parents could drop kids off, and for a couple of bucks, they kids could watch movies and terrorize the inside of the theater," Mendenhall said. "There used to be hundreds of kids in there running around. I was one of the kids terrorizing the Villa. I remember going to a lot of movies there."
Not only have the memories made the renovation interesting for Mendenhall and Achter, but the architecture and building design also have been significant.
"It's been very interesting restoring this building," Achter said. "So many different methods were used in construction. It's given me a lot of respect for the amount of work and labor that went into a building of that size and design."
As part of their effort to bring the theater up to seismic code, they've had to add steel rods to reinforce the building. Adib decided to do it from the outside in by adding Greek columns around the outside perimeter, which Mendenhall says will make it more interesting.
Support from community members interested in the project has made it bearable for Adib, especially on the days when the renovations are very frustrating. Sometimes people will come in and tell him memories they have of coming to the theater when they were younger or of how they went on their first date there and have now been married 40 or 50 years. After hearing these stories, it all becomes worthwhile for Adib.
"When I hear a few of those and how good people feel about this project, it takes away every bit of frustration. I am determined to do whatever I can to put this place together," he said
The handwoven rugs of various sizes that will soon be displayed in the theater come from all over the world India, Iran, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Nepal and Tibet, which are the rugmaking regions of the world. The rugs range in size from 1-by-2 feet up to 25-by-40 feet, with prices from $50 up into the hundreds of thousands.
Some of these creations date back two or three centuries. One was only completed by the efforts of eight people working simultaneously six days a week for seven years. Another is made entirely of silk, features more than 1,000 knots per square inch and took the efforts of three people working simultaneously for 3 1/2 years to complete.
"Some of these rugs would take one person's lifetime to create," he said. "(The rug gallery) is something that we realize for Salt Lake might be overkill, but we're not doing it for this market; we're doing it because it's a beautiful facility and hopefully we'll attract more people."
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