A gift from the family of the late Brenham mayor, Dr. W. F. “Boy” Hasskarl, Jr. and his late wife, Johnnie, was announced today by the Save-Our-Simon Board.
Dr. Hasskarl was an early honorary chairman of the fundraising committee of the non-profit board that has worked to restore the theatre, developing it into a conference center. The theatre’s main room will now be named Hasskarl Auditorium. Like many Brenham residents, Dr. Hasskarl had memories of the theater, his dating back to the Vaudeville days.
“This gift is a tremendous boost to our campaign,” Charles Moser, one of the Simon committee members said. “Not only will it help us toward our goal, but it will honor a leader who contributed so much to our community.”
After raising more than $5.2 million in cash and pledges for the past 10 years and now being in a position to receive an additional $2 million in historic tax credits, the Save-Our-Simon board believes restoration of the 1925 downtown Simon Theatre is on the verge of completion this year.
When the doors open on a new era, it will be known as the Barnhill Conference Center in the Historic Simon Theatre.
This is as a result of nearly $2 million dollars in gifts from the Barnhill family, friends at Blue Bell Creameries, where John Barnhill headed sales and marketing for some 40 years and from other individuals throughout the state.
Hundreds of other gifts have come from members of the Simon board, local residents and people who grew up going to the theatre and want to see it back in use.
Earlier a $1 million gift from the estate of the late Roberta Johnson allowed the construction of the highly-acclaimed Washington County Visitors Center, which is on the first floor of the theatre.
Hal Moorman, chairman of the board and co-chairman of the fund raising drive, pointed out that although the Simon project will be a great example of historical preservation and there are sentimental feelings about the facility, the biggest reason for its restoration is to provide a major economic stimulus to downtown and all of Washington County.
“We think that a first class conference center in a historic building in an already-popular downtown will attract out-of-town visitors to small conventions in Brenham. Not only will it help downtown merchants, but it will bring in hotel and motel guests, help service stations, convenience stores and restaurants as well as increase sales tax collections for our community.”
As recent construction activity has peaked interest, indicating that the facility may actually be completed soon, sizable gifts from foundations such as Houston Endowment, Hobby, Butler and Andras have given new life to the campaign.
As RWG Construction, a local firm that has expertise in renovating hotels all over the country, continues to work on the project, owner Bob Grabarschick said that he grew up going to movies at the Simon. “I am doing everything I can to bring it back and make it a real showplace for Brenham,” he said.
By making the facility a conference center, the vision is to have large sessions in the theatre auditorium followed by break-out sessions in smaller meeting rooms. Ideally, these meetings could conclude with lunch or dinner in the Bullock Ballroom on the second floor.
The plans call for 300 seats in the main auditorium and space for about 200 seated at round tables in the upstairs ballroom.
During the planning stages, the Kugel building which adjoined the Simon on Douglas Street, was unexpectedly made available to the Simon group for sale. It was determined that this facility did not qualify as historic, having been built in 1957, and because of structural issues, it was recommended that it be demolished.
“Restrooms in the old Simon building needed to be upgraded and relocated”, says Tom Bullock, Jr., another member of the board, and son of the original board chairman for whom the 2nd floor ballroom is named.
“One solution was to put them in the rear of the theatre, but doing this would have reduced the seating capacity of the theatre considerably,” he added, “and would have dramatically altered its original layout.”
Fortunately for the Simon board, the availability of the adjoining building created two opportunities. First, making an opening in a rear wall of the theatre would allow access to modern men’s and women’s restrooms that could be built in the newly acquired area.
Secondly, this expanse could ultimately also provide room for an office and catering kitchen, but most importantly it would allow first floor space for another ballroom that could be divided into two meeting rooms and would open to the nearby Alamo Alley for receptions. It would be accessible from Douglas Street, as well as through the theatre.
“Funds to complete this adjoining building were not in the original plans,” said Bullock. “We can put the restrooms in a somewhat temporary building connected to the Simon in the vacant Kugel space, allowing the conference center to open for business.
“Or, we can hope to find a contributor, or several contributors, who see the value of enhancing the overall conference facility concept and would like that new building named for them,” Bullock added.
As one observer told the board, “Not only would that addition be another asset to downtown, it would make a really good project great.”
A local campaign with a variety of naming opportunities is planned for the near future.
Story and photo courtesy of Jennifer Eckermann, Main Street Brenham.