- 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 (https://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.

The last staff person left the theater building at 5:30 p.m., Hoffman said. No one noticed anything out of the ordinary until 7 p.m.

Someone leaving the Elks Lodge, which sits across the street from the theater, saw smoke pouring from the building’s roof. The Abilene Fire Department was quickly called, then reinforcements from surrounding communities, as fire rolled across the roof, engulfing the building.

People came to the corner of Third and Mulberry to stand and watch. Tears streamed down some of their faces. The Abilene Reflector-Chronicle reported there were as many as 500 people.

“It was a very emotional moment for a lot of people,” Hoffman said. “Some of them had been married in the church.”

Many Kansans instantly found out about the fire through Facebook and Twitter pictures that were uploaded from cellphones.

Abilene has the second-oldest community band in Kansas. Tietjens, who plays baritone horn, was at the group’s Wednesday night practice when he heard the news. The band director came up to him and showed him a picture on his cellphone.

“I decided I could leave, and I went down and saw it couldn’t be saved,” Tietjens said. “It reminded me of the Kirby House.”

In February 2013, a fire gutted the historic Kirby House, which Tietjens had lovingly restored into a restaurant. Built in 1885 by Abilene banker Thomas Kirby, the house was on the original site where Joseph McCoy built his home. McCoy made Abilene the first cow town in Kansas and was the man who extended the Chisholm Trail from Wichita to Abilene.

The cause of the Kirby House fire is undetermined.

Both losses are devastating to Abilene, which is one of Kansas’ major tourism destinations, in part because of its cow town heritage but also because it houses the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

“It is a huge loss,” said Torey Berndt, executive director of Abilene’s Chamber of Commerce. “Abilene has lost a treasure. It was such a good asset for the community. It provided so much more than live performances.”

Both fires, Tietjens said, “felt like losing a child or someone who is really important.”

Rose Rozmiarek, chief investigator with the Kansas State Fire Marshal Office, said the cause of the theater fire will officially be ruled as undetermined.

“It was most likely a possible lightning strike,” Rozmiarek said.

Lightning may have struck nearby and that may have damaged the tubing of a natural gas system that supplied the theater.

“I’m not saying it hit gas tubing; it doesn’t have to hit,” Rozmiarek said. “I wouldn’t say there was a storm. . Lightning could happen ahead of a storm. It can happen on a clear day.”

A National Weather Service meteorologist on Thursday said she found no evidence of a lightning strike that morning.

“I’m not showing any lightning or any thunder that would be indicative of lightning,” said meteorologist Emily Heller with the National Weather Service in Topeka. “I can’t say whether there was or wasn’t lightning. All I’m seeing is rain.”

Hoffman, the theater’s director, said the company plans to relocate in Abilene and build a new theater.

The professional theater company began its 20th anniversary season in June. On July 20, it closed production on “The Boys Next Door.” And on Aug. 8 it will open its next production, “Always . Patsy Cline,” at Abilene High School.

The blow of losing both the Kirby House and the theater is hard for the community of 6,800, said Glenda Purkis, director of the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It is devastating to our tourism program,” Purkis said. “But the fact that the theater will still go forward with performances is a great thing.”


Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, https://www.kansas.com

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