Beth Howard, executive director of the Friends of the Coronado Foundation, gestures toward a 1996 image of the theater on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, while explaining fixes the facade needs today. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)
By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Four years ago, a decorative cast-stone architectural detail dropped from the third floor of the historic Coronado Performing Arts Center and crashed onto the sidewalk below.

Beth Howard, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Coronado Foundation, found the piece partly smashed on the sidewalk as she approached the theater. It was July 2018, and suddenly the organization that’s played a major role in protecting the 95-year-old theater not only had a preservation issue, but a potential public safety hazard as well.

Howard said her first call was to Paul Siemborski of DLR Group, who worked on the massive 2001 restoration project.

“They sounded the alarm,” she said. The told her, “This is not a restoration project, this is a get to the bottom of what’s causing this issue problem.”

The nonprofit and the city, which owns the Coronado, spent the next four years making initial fixes and working to find funding for the other improvements. They also removed some of the other cast-stone details for safety reasons. That work got it to where it is today: with more than $2 million secured so that the latest round of renovations can move forward later this year.

“Over time, just like anyone’s home, you need to make constant repairs,” Mayor Tom McNamara said on This Week in the Stateline. “We need assistance in doing so, and the Friends of the Coronado has been a good partner with us.”

The city is now negotiating an architectural services agreement with hopes to put the project out for bids later this summer, according to Kyle Saunders, Rockford’s director of public works. The city anticipates about three months of design work and up to a year under construction, with work finishing around September 2023.

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Decorative cast-stone architectural details were removed from the Coronado Performing Arts Center after damage to the facade that caused one to fall. They will soon be replaced. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

The Friends of the Coronado commissioned an $18,000 study in 2019 of the theater’s facade issues with the help of a grant from the Smith Charitable Foundation and other donors. That 83-page study by Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates was taken to state Sen. Steve Stadelman and state Rep. Maurice West to jump-start the process of raising the money for the fixes.

The study showed the issue was a pervasive problem of moisture penetrating the joint sealants.

The study estimates the repairs to cost about $2.3 million, but supply-chain issues and inflation have driven up those costs. The project will not only restore the theater, but it will make fixes that prevent further damage to the masonry.

Stadelman helped secure $200,000 for the project, and an additional $720,265 was included as part of the state’s Rebuild Illinois capital plan.

The city also took up pursuing grants, and won $500,000 from the state’s Tourism Attractions and Festival Grant Program to go toward the project.

“The one thing we want to make sure we do, as the owners of the Coronado, is fulfill the mission of the Coronado, which is it’s a place for every single person in Rockford,” McNamara said. “And to make sure that it is we need to make sure we keep it well maintained.”

Howard said the latest work is another example of the partnership that restored the theater. That partnership started in 1997, and culminated with an $18.5 million public-private fundraising campaign that allowed the Coronado to reopen in 2001 after a full restoration and expansion.

“It’s a critical partnership,” Howard said. “The Coronado Theatre will remain Rockford’s crown jewel under the watchful eye of this great partnership of the city and the Friends of the Coronado.”

The organization won a national award in 2002 as the Organization of the Year from the U.S. Department of the Interior – National Trust for Historic Preservation for the restoration project.

“Our powerful partnership will always be here for the Coronado and our community,” Howard said.

She said groups like the Friends are needed to take on some of the work a private company may not. For example, when the iconic marquee was no longer lighting, Howard set off on an exhaustive search to find the right LED bulbs for the sign. Supply-chain issues and pandemic-related shutdowns made the search difficult, but eventually Howard tracked down the same bulb being used at the Nederlander Theatre in Chicago. She then used a personal credit card to order 3,000 bulbs and get them shipped from China to the ports of Georgia, and eventually to Rockford.

“Who has the time for that? Who would do that?” Howard said. “It’s going to have to be that independent (organization) that says we’re just going to dig in and see where this goes, see where we can raise the money.”

That 2021 project was funded with the help of a Community Foundation of Northern Illinois grant.

She said the Friends are grateful the theater is owned by the city, and they will continue to work to keep it preserved, protected and operating downtown.

“We’ll never let go,” she said. “We’ll just keep being the resource.”

How to help

The Friends of the Coronado accepts donations to ensure it can preserve the historic theater as a time-honored symbol of civic pride. You can donate here or visit friendsofthecoronado.org.

This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at khaas@rockrivercurrent.com or follow him on Twitter at @KevinMHaas or Instagram @thekevinhaas.

The signage on the Coronado Performing Arts Center marquee is changed during the rain on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in downtown Rockford. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)
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