Empty and silent for the past three years, the Culpeper State Theatre is being re-imagined once again.
Front portions of the Art Deco-style structure on South Main Street are planned for retail and a restaurant and bar. The back section—housing a 50-feet fly tower—is now under construction as an indoor rock climbing facility, according to the building’s new co-owners, Culpeper businessman Jim Wells and Madison County native Dos Allen.
“I felt like the building had a good chance of becoming a permanent failure,” Wells said in a phone interview Monday with the Star-Exponent. “If it failed once or twice more, it would have a reputation to not go there. When you have these big dark holes on your street, it just kills everything from going past that point. I felt like the theater was becoming a black hole.”
Business partner Allen is developing the back of the facility as the rock climbing business, which he is calling State Climb.
“How do you feel about climbing?” he asked Monday. “It’s for just about everybody.”
A downtown property owner who has lived in Culpeper since the 1970s, Wells intends to attract a variety of new uses for the 24,000-square-foot structure. He and Allen, of Etlan, will close on the property this Wednesday for a selling price of $730,000.
The new ownership will continue a storied lineage for the former movie house. Opened in 1938 by then-State Senator Benjamin Pitts as a Pitts Theater, it remained in business into the early 1990s. During its subsequent ownership by a secret society known as The Finders, the theater sat closed to the public and became dilapidated, with the only sign of life inside surfacing as cryptic messages occasionally appearing on the marquee.
In 2013, the theater came gloriously back to life as a live arts venue following a $13 million renovation by a nonprofit group of community leaders. Three years later, it abruptly closed due to unpaid construction debt. A Northern Virginia entertainment venue company purchased the theater for $726,000 at a foreclosure auction in 2018, before putting it back on the market earlier this year.
The co-new owner, Wells, is an accountant by trade. He owns a number of other properties in Culpeper, including the multi-suite business building at 509 S. Main St. That location houses Puzzle Room Live, CASH Designs and a gaming operation, and is the future home for the hospital’s planned imaging center.
Wells intends to similarly divide the State Theatre into suites for leasing. To the left of the box office, he envisions a retail business where there was one formerly in the historic venue’s earlier days as Pitts Theatre.
To the right of the box office is the expansive lobby space Wells is marketing as a restaurant and bar. It would include the former black box theater space directly upstairs and the sizable balcony overlooking Main Street.
Determining a use for the now-empty auditorium space will be the most difficult part, Wells said. He said he has shown it to a couple prospective users, including a fitness coach.
“I’ve had people suggest everything from fitness to an indoor golf range to ax throwing,” Wells said. “We are going to have to formulate a plan for that middle section and we’re going to even out the floor to a certain degree.”
Country singer Marty Stuart, who performed a sold-out show in the theater in 2015, purchased the auditorium’s innards through an online auction in the spring of 2018. That included the sound system and lights, stage curtains, rigging and fly tower and all 500 theater seats. Stuart plans to use the equipment in his Congress of Country Music in Mississippi.
As for the State Theatre in Culpeper, “It won’t be a theater again,” Wells said. “When they took out the seats and sound equipment, it killed that as a possibility.”
Behind the stage is where the rock climbing operation will be situated. Allen said he had been looking for a space locally to pursue the active venture. He got interested in rock climbing not too long ago while living in New York City.
“I saw there were a whole lot of climbing gyms popping up and this culture growing up around it,” Allen said, noting the activity is well-suited for all ages, sizes and genders. “It’s super cool to get to know yourself and to get know your friends.”
Sport climbing will make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, he said. The sport has three components, he explained—bouldering, speed climbing and lead climbing.
“I intend to have all three available at the State theatre,” Allen said.
His operation will start with bouldering, in which climbers will scale a 16-foot-tall wall with no rope and foot-and-half-thick floor padding underneath. Allen said he hopes to have that portion operational by mid-December. The facility will then expand into the stage area, where the ceilings are 50 feet high and conducive for climbing with ropes, he added.
“I’ll be settling into the business in the next couple of days and will be working there full time until it opens,” Allen said, adding, “It’s pretty cool to be building in old town Culpeper.”
He hopes the facility will provide yet another reason for people to come spend time and money in historic downtown.
On Sunday Wells, while looking around in the theater’s basement with this wife, found the marquee letters and posted a message on Main Street for all to see: “Open Soon.”