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Varsity Cinema: Creating Experiences, Preserving History

March 31, 2023

The Varsity Theater closed its doors on December 30, 2018, after 80 years of operation in Des Moines’ Dogtown commercial district. At that time, the Varsity was the last operating historic theater in Des Moines and, through the decades, became a central element to peoples’ lives throughout the community. Marketing itself as showing ‘movies worth talking about,’ the Varsity represented a trusted theater for independent and art house film. The community trust built by the Varsity created a legacy that people know, trust and remember throughout Des Moines, which is why the details to preserve history in the revitalization were so important.

As is the case with many historic preservation projects, the revitalization of the Varsity extended well beyond the physical rehabilitation of the building itself. This project used the historically sensitive improvement of the building to sustain the legacy. A legacy of Des Moines film. A legacy of the Mahon and Fridley families who stewarded the property and fostered a ‘Hollywood’ industry in the heartland. A legacy of accessibility to the art of film. A legacy that is now being carried forward by Des Moines Film, a nonprofit organization dedicated to growing a vibrant local film culture and community.

Des Moines Film began the process to purchase the building in 2019 with hopes to kick off an aggressive capital campaign and have the theater reopened in early 2021. The pandemic changed restoration and fundraising plans. Instead of beginning with large corporate gifts and grants, the organization focused the foundation of its fundraising efforts on small donations from many people. Over the two-year fundraising period through the pandemic, the project raised nearly $1 million from over 1,000 individual givers. This broad base of financial support built a strong footing for the project’s grant writing and corporate giving requests.

The newly rehabilitated Varsity Cinema reopened to the public on December 14, 2022, after a four-year, $5 million investment. To reach this milestone, Des Moines Film built strong partnerships to build awareness and foster support for the project. They partnered with the city to designate the property a historic landmark, which then opened the door for use of Iowa Historic Tax Credits. The project team applied for grants to support individual elements of the project. Des Moines Film also partnered with other property development partners to build confidence for the project to lenders, funders and community partners.

Renovations included expanding the lobby, enhancing the concessions stands, modernizing all electrical and mechanical systems, introducing a sprinkler system, adding an elevator and accessible bathrooms, and improving the overall customer experience. For programming, Des Moines Film was able to work with their design team and the State Historic Preservation Office to add a second ‘microcinema’ auditorium on the second floor. The work was done while thoughtfully maintaining the historic integrity of the property.

Varsity Cinema can continue serving as a social, cultural and economic hub for Des Moines and the Drake neighborhood. The project has strengthened local partnerships and has served as a catalyst for dynamic reinvestment opportunities in the Dogtown commercial district. Combining historic preservation principles with creative design, the Varsity restoration can serve as a model for historic theater revitalization projects using historic preservation to drive local economic development.