Eastside's Sleeping Giant

The attic toys Dan Dermody points to on the third floor of the former Madisonville Senior Center are 20-odd wooden chairs lying against the wall, a large metal coffee urn, a telephone booth and sca

The attic toys Dan Dermody points to on the third floor of the former Madisonville Senior Center are 20-odd wooden chairs lying against the wall, a large metal coffee urn, a telephone booth and scattered Cincinnati Recreation blueprints of long-ago city playgrounds in Eden Park, College Hill and the East End. It's interesting trash and, Dermody promises, so much more.

Dermody, 53, a former Kenner Toys facilities manager and longtime community theater buff and scenic designer, has found the project of a lifetime with the vacant Madisonville Senior Center just off Madison Road and the Cincinnati neighborhood's rundown retail district.

The Madisonville Community Arts Center (MCAC), what Dermody and his volunteer group are calling their brick-and-mortar effort, creates a performance space, an exhibition gallery, a workshop area and, better yet, a chance to energize Madisonville.

Reusing the brick building's existing materials points to the green architecture goals for rehabbing the neighborhood arts center out of a building that's been vacant for three years. (GBBN Architects is providing pro bono design work.)

Green architecture requires the use of durable natural resource efficient materials to minimize a building's negative environmental impact. It's about sustainability, interconnectedness and interdependence. While the excellence in its environmental design remains to be seen, the MCAC building promises to be more eco-friendly than most.

Current drawings depict an art gallery, box office and lobby on the 1929 building's first floor.

A 160-seat theater auditorium occupies its second floor. An office and a workshop with dance flooring occupy the third floor.

It's a warm weekday morning in mid-June, and Dermody has opened the building to show off its potential. Told that he has a sleeping giant on his hands, he smiles.

He has the spirit to see the project through to its completion. What he's seeking is more funds and volunteers.

"The city of Cincinnati needs an affordable arts venue," Dermody says. "To be able to come in here and do what we plan to do in here is exciting. It is a good thing to do, and I know we can do it. We just want to do it right — on a small scale."

Dermody says rehab work will begin in July with trash removal and demolition. Plumbing, electrical and heating and air conditioning improvements are next. The freight elevator will also be repaired. The debut MCAC performance is planned for January 2006.

MCAC has $139,000 in secure funding ($75,000 from the city of Cincinnati and the rest from local grants and individuals) and a 50-year city lease for $1 per year. Their Phase One goal is $172,000, with an end goal of $452,000 to renovate the building completely.

A small staff will operate the building. Volunteers will help manage the space. The auditorium will be the income producer for the center to cover ongoing expenses.

Neighborhood art centers in Kennedy Heights and Price Hill show Dermody that success is possible, although he promises eclectic programming more challenging than most community theater fare.

More importantly, MCAC will be affordable to small arts groups, offering a rent package based on box office percentage instead of rent guarantees.

Of course, the compelling part of the story is Madisonville and its potential to grow and thrive with the help of a successful arts anchor. Look at what's going on in Oakley, Dermody says. Look at the surrounding neighborhoods, and you have a glimpse of what Madisonville can become.

The brick building has continued to endure throughout its changing history: car showroom, nightclub and a senior center until its closing three years ago.

For now, Dermody is unsure what to do with the National Cash Registers with their large hand cranks and wooden casings or the reams of Avondale Community Center Pools tickets (admission: 50 cents).

Whatever happens, he knows a refurbished building will help celebrate the past and rally spirits in the present. If all goes according to plan, MCAC will unite people in a part of town that's seen better days.

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