Owner attempting to foreclose on Walker Theatre property

The owner of a parcel of downtown property that Madame Walker Theatre Center is trying to purchase is seeking to foreclose on the parcel because of missed payments.

George Greene filed the complaint in Marion Superior Court on Aug. 1, charging he is owed $859,655 in principal on a $990,000 loan taken in January 2006 by directors of the not-for-profit that operates the historic downtown theater.

Madame Walker Urban Life Center Inc. entered into an agreement to buy the property at 632 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St., which is just north of the theater. The property previously was the home of Willis Mortuary.

Theater directors wanted the former mortuary building to accommodate an ambitious $10 million expansion. The project would have increased the size of the one-time vaudeville theater’s stage and add room for props and costumes. Officials had hoped it also would help them lure larger productions to fill the theater's nearly 1,000 seats.

At one time, directors were considering the former mortuary to house a relocated Madam Walker Museum, or tearing it down to make way for additional parking.

But the theater has struggled financially through the years. Greene claims in his lawsuit that the theater has defaulted on the loan and has not made quarterly payments of $14,000 since June 2010.

Greene is asking that the real estate be sold in an attempt to satisfy the amount he is owed. He also is seeking $61,187 in interest on the loan and $285,666 in attorney's fees, according to court documents.

According to the theater’s website, staff and board members are moving forward with plans to establish a permanent endowment for the preservation of the theater and to “escalate” a capital campaign to transform it into a “state-of-the-art” venue.

Four theater directors are listed in Greene’s lawsuit, including Christopher Barney, who served as president until July 1.

Madame Walker Theatre Center CEO Terry Whitt Bailey issued a written statement late Monday morning: “The Madame Walker President and Board Chair have been in contact and discussion for many months prior to Mr. Greene’s engagement of an attorney and the filing of this lawsuit. The intent of those discussions and negotiations always has been to enable Walker to obtain the property for future expansion and development opportunities, which were stymied by the economic collapse of the past few years. We will continue to work with Mr. Greene and his representatives to attempt to achieve a resolution that is acceptable to both parties and ensure that the property is put to positive use in its historic location along the Indiana Avenue corridor.”

Reached by phone, Greene’s lawyer, Merle Rose, declined to discuss the complaint.

The four-story, 48,000-square-foot Madame Walker building at the corner of Indiana Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Street houses the theater, a ballroom and several offices rented to not-for-profits and a handful of small, black-owned firms. It also houses the Madam C.J. Walker Museum, which honors the woman who built an Indianapolis grooming-products empire in the early 1900s.

When it was built in 1927, the center was envisioned as a networking center, a hub for black-owned businesses and a forum for the arts. In many ways, it has stayed true to those purposes.

But, by the 1950s, the center was beginning to struggle with vacancies, and the building was closed in the mid-1960s.

It reopened in 1988. These days, the theater hosts professional touring productions that feature black artists or themes.


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