Dakota Datebook

Empire Arts Center

Monday, November 9, 2009


Driving down DeMers Avenue and headed toward the Red River, you will find the building some refer to as “The Jewel in the Heart of Downtown Grand Forks”. Otherwise known as the Empire Arts Center, the building has seen numerous name changes and several face lifts in its 90 year history.
Minnesota architects Charles Buechner and Henry Orth-who designed various movie theatres such as the Fargo Theatre, The State Theatre in Sioux Falls, and the Shubert in St. Paul- were known as “one of the most successful architectural practices of its day”. It was the team of Buechner and Orth who planned the New Grand Theatre in downtown Grand Forks, the “largest theatre in town ever built for the purpose of showing only moving pictures”. The theatre was an elegant and classy building, with a spacious 32-inches of legroom between the rows of grey leather upholstered seats, rose-colored linen rugs and chandeliers. Every standard was met for safety, health and fire-resistance. Tunnels under the theatre guaranteed that movie-goers would not end up with chilled feet, due to concrete floors built against the ground.
Despite the first blizzard of the year, windy conditions, and a lack of taxicabs due to a foot of new snow, the New Grand Theatre opened to an almost full house on this day in 1919. Adult admission was 25 cents, while children paid just 15 cents to see the show. Movie-goers were treated to a newsreel, a comedy-short called Harold, the Last of the Saxons, and ending with the feature film called The Witness for the Defense. The Theatre boasted a 5-piece orchestra and a piano to play along with the film.
Remodeled in 1930, and another remodel again in 1954, the Grand Theatre officially changed its name to the Empire. But in 1994, after 75 years in the movie house business, the building ceased operation. The once-stately and elegant building was donated to the North Valley Arts Council. It would be remodeled, refurbished and reborn as a downtown destination for art, concerts and theatre productions.
The 1997 Flood in Grand Forks brought thousands of dollars of damage to the downtown landmark. But with the goal of preservation- and lots of perspiration- the Empire opened its doors once again in March of 1998. Fundraisers and donors basked in opening-night glory as classical guitarist Berta Rojas serenaded guests.
The New Grand Theatre, now reborn as The Empire Arts Center is once again “The Jewel in the Heart of Downtown Grand Forks.”
Dakota Datebook written by Jill Whitcomb
Empire Arts Center website- http://www.empireartscenter.com/history.html
The Historic Empire Theatre- from movie house to Arts Centre-Christopher P. Jacobs- http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/EmpireHistory.htm

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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