- Associated Press - Friday, August 8, 2014

ABILENE, Kan. (AP) - On the morning of July 23, Maggie Hoffman expressed optimism to her staff.

The new executive director of the Great Plains Theatre had been on the job for two months. Progress had been made paying off the theater’s building loan; there had been a recent uptick in tickets sold.

“Everyone knows we had financial difficulty in the past,” Hoffman told The Wichita Eagle (http://bit.ly/1rSqzUd ).

“We were getting on track, and things were going really well. I even made a comment: ‘Guys, I think we are really making progress.’ Our assistant director knocked on wood.”

Less than 10 hours later, Hoffman stood on the lawn watching fire gut the Great Plains Theatre building.

The building, a renovated Gothic Romanesque limestone church that had ties to the beginnings of Abilene, was destroyed along with its contents.

“I grew up in Abilene,” Hoffman said. “I grew up onstage. I went to college and never thought I’d be back in Abilene. But then this position opened up my senior year.

“I thought if something happens to the theater, I wanted to have the opportunity to help, not thinking of any tragedy.”

For 132 years, the First Presbyterian Church of Abilene stood on the northwest corner of Mulberry and Third.

The Presbyterians had an earlier church that stood at that location but it was damaged in an 1881 tornado, according to the nominating form from the building’s National Register of Historic Places. A bell in the tower dated 1876 was moved from the first church.

By the early 1990s, the Presbyterians had moved on, building a new church. In 1994, Terry Tietjens, a local developer and preservationist, was looking for a building he could buy and give to the community in honor of his family and theater arts. He bought the building, renovated it and turned it into the Tietjens Center for the Performing Arts.

Six months after Tietjens bought the property, Great Plains became the state’s first Equity union and nonunion professional actors’ regional theater.

Tietjens and another Abilene resident and patron of the theater, Ruth Dieter, spent nearly half a million dollars renovating the building. The theater’s offices were set up in areas where ceilings were once falling down and where pigeons once rested in the bell tower.

In 2008, the Great Plains Theatre officially purchased the building from Tietjens.

Light rain fell softly on Abilene the morning of July 23.

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