Decatur - Lincoln Theater

A ghost called one-armed red is seen and heard here.





The Lincoln Theater, located on North Main Street in downtown Decatur, is one of only two of the city's grand theaters that remain standing today. It opened in 1916 with a large seating capacity and a sprawling stage. It was a labyrinth, and remains so today, with its mezzanine, high balcony, basements and sub-cellars. The theater holds many secrets, and according to some, many ghosts.
The theater was not the first building to stand on the site that it now occupies in downtown Decatur. Aside from frontier construction by the early settlers, the first real building on the site was the Priest Hotel. W.S. Crissey opened it on the northwest corner of the Old Square in 1860, although it was completed and operated for many years by Franklin Priest. In 1880, Riley Deming took over the establishment and changed its name to the New Deming. It was later purchased by Augustine Wait and in 1892; he changed the name to the Arcade Hotel. Eight years later, he would remodel, expand, and call it the Decatur & Arcade Hotel. There was a horrible fire in 1904, which destroyed the building, but it was rebuilt on the same site a short time later. It was in 1915 however, when disaster struck. 
On April 21, 1915, a spectacular fire broke out and destroyed the hotel, claiming two lives and damaging several of the surrounding structures. The blaze was believed to have started because of some oily rags that were left near the hotel’s boiler. A night watchman discovered them smoldering and tried to put them out, but was driven back by thick smoke that began churning from the refuse. The blaze quickly spread and while all of the fire equipment in the city arrived on the scene within minutes, smoke was soon billowing from the lower windows. Water began to be pumped from the trucks but because the smoke was to thick to enter the basement, the firefighters had no idea of the exact location of the fire. It was said that a roar came up from the crowd assembled in Lincoln Square when the first flames appeared.
The Decatur & Arcade Hotel burned to the ground in April 1915... leaving lingering spirits behind in the ashes.
The fire came from the rear of the hotel and could be seen glowing through the front doors. The firemen began dragging hose into the building but within ten minutes, the blaze had entered the walls and was eating through the roof of the hotel. At that point, Fire Chief C.W. DeVore began directing his men to turn their attentions to the other buildings nearby, as there was no hope for the hotel. The nearby structures, including the Bachman Bros. & Martin Co. furniture store, the YMCA, the First Presbyterian Church and the Odd Fellows Building, were saved but as the north wall of the seven-story Arcade building collapsed, it struck the Bachman Bros. warehouse with a tremendous crash and a loud explosion. The furniture store was saved from heavier losses thanks to a heavy firewall that refused to give in and a new sprinkler system.
The two men killed in the fire were William E. Graham, an engineer for the Decatur Bridge Co. and C.S. Guild, a traveling salesman from Lockport, New York. The bodies were found in the ruins, although several other hotel guests were never found. Whether or not they escaped from the inferno is unknown. What is known is that the disaster could have been much worse. If it had not been raining before the fire broke out, it's possible that the entire west part of downtown, including many homes, could have been destroyed. The hotel was never rebuilt and the Lincoln Theater took the older building's place.
Many have pondered the question as to whether or not the spirits of the people killed in the hotel fire might walk in the dark corners of the Lincoln Theater. It now stands directly on the location of the former hotel and many have speculated that the ghosts could have passed into the new building and may have taken up residence there.
Fires in Decatur had been far too common in years past. A number of public buildings had been destroyed by fire, including the Powers Opera House, which burned twice. Being built on the site of a hotel destroyed by fire must have made the designers of the Lincoln Theater especially aware of the possible dangers and they were determined to make this building "absolutely fireproof".
The new theater was constructed by Clarence Wait in 1916 on land that he had inherited from his father's estate. The Decatur architectural firm of Aschauer & Waggoner was hired to draw up plans for the theater and the buildings surrounding it. These buildings included the Odd Fellows Lodge and seven smaller stores that fronted Main Street with offices on the second floor. These smaller stores were given the name of Lincoln Square, which was also the name of the theater until it was shortened in 1930.
The theater was designed and built on a section of land that would be L-shaped, with an entrance in the middle of the block. To insure that the place was "fireproof", the original boilers were housed in the Odd Fellows Building and separated from the theater by a thick firewall. This wall, which was about two-feet thick, surrounded the entire building. The interior of the building was also carefully designed as the walls, floors, railings, ceilings, fixtures, and even the curtains, were all said to be impossible to burn. Architect Charles Aschauer claimed that the entire block could burn down, but this theater would be left standing and little did he know that there would be times when this boast would be tested!
The public got its first look at the interior of the new theater in October 1916 when John W. Dooley held a Christian Science lecture there. The formal and official grand opening took place at the end of the month, on October 27, 1916. The Lincoln opened to "standing room only" crowds of Decatur's finest citizens, dressed in black tie and formal wear and eager to see the new, glorious theater of which they had heard so much about. The first program to be presented was George M. Cohan's stage comedy, Hit the Trail Holliday starring Frank Otto. In addition to the show, speeches were given that night by Mayor Dan Dineen and by Clarence Wait, who once again bragged about the "fireproof" status of the theater and its solid and safe fire escapes.
The audience loved the show and raved about the spectacular design of the theater, from its private seating boxes, to the massive ivory-colored columns, to the 1,346 seats, all of which offered a splendid view and wonderful acoustics. Also new to Decatur was the mezzanine seating, which ran just below the balcony and offered seats that were only slightly above the level of the stage.
In those early years, the main emphasis at the Lincoln was on stage shows and vaudeville acts. The community also put the theater into use as well and it hosted many small, local productions and the Decatur High School commencement services each spring. Many famous stars appeared here, including, Ethel Barrymore, Al Jolson, Ed Wynn, Jeanette MacDonald, and many others. Audiences also thrilled to such attractions as a sparring exhibition by Jack Dempsey after his famous fight with Georges Carpentier.

Decatur, Illinois

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Source: Internet

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