Until December of 2023, Athena’s Gem Theatre in Umatilla County was closed for fifty-five years. Now the 200 seat auditorium with its 1921 Wurlitzer pipe organ has been restored thanks to community members who refused to give up. Now this community in rural Northeast Oregon, an area with few performance spaces for the arts or community events, has an important new venue.

“Many times it would have been far easier to have shuttered the thing and walked away from it,” said Rob Mcintyre, Treasurer and Project Manager of Athena’s Gem. When the building was inspected for the first time after decades of disuse, there were cobwebs in the basement that went from floor to ceiling.

Yet Mcintyre and the volunteers kept going. It took the community nearly two decades and 47,500 volunteer hours to restore the stage and building. Of the 400 volunteers on the project, half were local students ages 12-18. Until his retirement in 2024, McIntyre was also the band director at the local high school–many of the youngest volunteers on the restoration project were part of the school band. The project was really too big for the community to take on, Mcintyre said, adding, “We pulled it off by breaking it down into stages and sticking with it for a long time.” 

Athena’s Gem Theatre opened for the first time in 1909 and Mcintyre and the community who worked so hard to save the theater hopes it stands for another 100 years. To that effect, they’ve put a time capsule in the theater walls that can’t be opened for another century. Mcintyre is excited to think about how many kids and adults in the community will have grown up with memories made inside Athena’s gem by then. 

In addition to the many hours of volunteer work, the Gem Theatre’s renovation was supported by financial grants from multiple institutions including the Roundhouse Foundation. 

Now, Mcintyre said, they can finally bring arts in Umatilla County to life at Athena’s Gem. Planned programming includes live and telecast theater performances, local school productions, budget priced movies, and community education events. 

Published On: April 23rd, 2024 / Categories: Featured Grant Stories, Foundation Highlights, Grant News /