BESSEMER, Ala. (WIAT) – Outside of the occasional train or car passing through, Bessemer’s First Avenue North remains pretty quiet most days.
However, Mary Holland remembers when that stretch of road was the center of town, especially around the Lincoln Theatre.
“We pretty much had everything we needed on First Avenue,” Holland said. “The theater was here, there were cafes, there were bake shops, there were libraries and pretty much, it was a great.”
Holland’s son, Andre, would get his hair cut at the barber shop just a feet away from the theater. By that time, the theater had been long closed, but in its heyday, it was so much more.
The Lincoln was built in 1948, a time when Jim Crow laws were still a way of life. Miles away on Birmingham’s Northside, the Lyric Theatre had a separate entrance on the side of the building for black patrons. However, the 400-seat Lincoln was one of the only theaters in Bessemer to serve the city’s black community.
“I was told it was all about the Benjamins,” Holland said. “It was a money-making venture because it was the only theater in town where African Americans could come to a movie.”
However, by the late 1970s or early 1980s, the theater had closed. Although the building itself remained open as a store for a time, the building has remained abandoned for decades.
By 2017, Andre Holland had grown up, left Bessemer, become a working actor and starred in major Hollywood movies like “42,” “Selma” and the Oscar-winning “Moonlight.” During a trip back home that year, Andre passed by the theater and made a choice: he wanted to buy it.
“He said ‘I want it,” Holland said. “I want to save that theater and turn it into a performing arts center.”
Andre, who was unavailable for comment due to a project he was working on overseas, gave his Mary and his father, Donald, responsibility to renovate the 7,500 square-foot building and bring it up to its former glory. They formed the nonprofit group, The Holland Project, with the sole purpose to bring the theater back to life.
Knowing nothing about historic theaters, Holland recruited Glenny Brock, who worked at Birmingham Landmarks and was involved with the restoration of the Lyric, which like the Lincoln had fallen into disarray before a capital campaign saved it and it reopened in 2016.
“To a certain extent, the Lincoln is where the Lyric was in 2013, but it’s a completely different adventure,” Brock said. “In some ways, the Lincoln restoration will be far more simple, in part because of the scale.”
Brock said she was moved by the fact that ever since he was a little boy, Andre had been drawn to the theater.
“I was just very moved that somebody who’s had the kind of professional and creative success that Andre has had, it is such a caper that what he would choose to do after that is to buy an abandoned theater in downtown Bessemer,” Brock said.
The Hollands have their work cut out for them. Due to the amount of time it sat vacant, the Lincoln is in need of millions of dollars in major renovations. There has already been a $100,000 grant committed to the project from the city of Bessemer, in addition to a $21,000 grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
However, the Hollands are confident that the project can be completed by 2021.
“It’s pretty much a treasure that I think people don’t even realize is here and once it’s reopened, I think it’s going to draw people to the downtown area for entertainment,” Holland said.
Nolanda Hatcher, an architect with Studio 2H Design who was involved in the restoration of the Carver Theatre, will likely be the architect for the Lincoln project. Hatcher said dreams such as renovating the Lincoln can inspire others to have their own dreams.
“Once you bring vacant buildings like that back online, it gives a vision to others to give improvements to other buildings to revitalize the area,” Hatcher said.
For Brock, seeing the Lincoln still standing while many similar theaters of its kind across the country have gone away over the years is an inspiring feeling.
“There are all these lost Lincolns, but this is a Lincoln that won’t be lost and that is thanks to Andre,” Brock said. “He really has a vision for this place and I’m excited I get to be a part of it.”
The Holland Project will soon begin a capital fundraising campaign for restoring the theater. For more information on the theater and how to donate to the project, visit www.alabamalincoln.com.