A dynamo of the Waco arts scene is turning her creative energies to Elm Avenue.
Doreen Ravenscroft, founder and executive director of Cultural Arts of Waco, has announced a nonprofit venture called ArtPlace at 418 Elm Ave., site of a long-vacant movie theater.
Ravenscroft said ArtPlace will be an all-purpose space for children’s and adult art classes, art shows, movie showings and performances. She also envisions it as an “anchor” for Elm Avenue, with a cafe and a sculpture park where people can come to hang out and build community.
“This is a wonderful area with wonderful people,” she said. “It gets a bad rap because it has derelict buildings. We want to do every little thing we can do to involve the community in bringing back what was a really live commercial center at Waco’s beginning.”
Ravenscroft bought the building and surrounding lots in May through the Ravenscroft Foundation, named in honor of her late husband, Bill Ravenscroft. The foundation will seek grants to renovate the building and then will lease it at no cost to the Cultural Arts of Waco. The organization is known for the Waco Cultural Arts Fest, Art on Elm, various mural and sculpture projects, arts education and the Doris Miller Memorial.
Ravenscroft said the idea for the arts hub grew out of the Art on Elm project, which used the old movie theater building as a gallery space. She said she has been involved in arts education in East Waco schools for 20 years, so she and her group have a strong relationship with the community.
“It’s been an amazing partnership,” she said.
Councilman Wilbert Austin, who represents East Waco, said the arts project is a “win-win” for Elm Avenue’s comeback.
“It’s a wonderful thing she’s bringing to the community,” he said.
The brick building, which has been vacant for most of the past 40 years, belonged to the heirs of Doug Brown, who had assembled Elm Avenue properties with a vision of redevelopment. ArtPlace fits perfectly into that vision, said Brown’s son, Sam Brown.
The family previously sold the property next door to former educator Nancy Grayson, who has established the popular Lula Jane’s Bakery there.
“We’ve sold this entire block between Doreen and Nancy,” Brown said. “Those two ladies on their own have such track records of being creative and being pioneers and accomplishing things and breaking through barriers that the fact that they both have chosen Elm to stake their claim is a huge compliment and show of support.”
Grayson said she is excited about the plans next door.
“We had so much concern about who would buy the theater,” she said. “Now that we know it’s going to be an arts place, we love it. We like Elm Avenue to be eclectic and fun.”
Ravenscroft held a brunch at the building to celebrate the project Sunday, which would have been the 80th birthday of her husband. Bill Ravenscroft, a British-born industrial chemist who developed Skittles, was retired from M&M-Mars and was known for his bird photography.
During a tour of the building Monday, Doreen Ravenscroft said it will lend itself to a variety of uses. The 2,400-square-foot building is three stories high in the front and slopes down to the back to where the movie screen used to be.
Inside, the space is a tall, skinny, brick-enclosed box with a balcony overlooking the main space.
“It’s an old building that’s weathered the years, and tornadoes and storms,” she said. “What you have here is wonderful bones — a box. You can be very creative with it.”
Ravenscroft said she plans to hire a historically minded architect to pin down the history of the building and design the renovations accordingly.
The building appears to date back to at least 1898, when it became the first of several locations of W.P. Pipkin Drugs, a Waco-based chain. At various times in the first half of the 20th century, it served as a variety store and a neon sign company.
In 1947, local movie theater manager Ed Newman converted it into the Elm Street Theatre, according to newspaper articles from the time. It appears extra height was added to the building at that time.
It was a segregated theater, with blacks relegated to the balcony. At the time, Elm was full of white-owned businesses, and black East Waco residents tended to frequent Clifton Street, home of the black-owned Alpha Theatre.
Austin, 75, who grew up in South Waco, said he doesn’t remember going to the Elm Street Theatre until the late 1950s. He said it was segregated then, and it closed soon after that.
Austin said that as far as he knows, the building has not had a permanent tenant since then.
Megan Henderson, executive director of City Center Waco, said turning a vacant building into an arts hub fits with the city’s Imagine Waco plan and the proposed new arts district.
“The neighborhood has consistently upheld the value of the arts as part of the guiding vision for how Elm develops,” she said. “That has been the clear and consistent message, year after year.”