Looking Back: Fire at the Student Enterprise Theater

Bridget Janis, Staff Reporter

The barn theater used to be home for many student performances, mostly from the Student Enterprise Theater, until it was burned down in a fire on Aug. 17, 1987. It also was used as a meeting place for multiple university groups including the Coffeehouse monthly entertainment series.

“I would pretend to be a famous movie actress… I almost cried when I found it had burned down,” Barb Thorpe, Meadow Brook Hall archives committee said then. “It held a lot of memories for me.”

While it seemed the fire in the Barn Theater had an unknown cause, police did report the phone line and alarm system did go down the night before. Kate Royce-Burdick, an orientation coordinator then,  reported the barn was hit by lightning on Aug.16, 1987 at 8:30 p.m.

Chief Richard Leonard was not able to confirm the fact the lightning had anything to do with the fire.

”We have no way to know that lightning struck that building,” he said then.

While the fire ruined the barn, it also destroyed several sets for plays that were to be used by the Center for the Arts that year.

The director at the time, Carl Barnes, said it ruined several pieces of furniture, two lighting boards, all mime ensemble equipment, 48 platforms that made up the studio theater stage, one piano and “flats” used for painting scenery.

At the time there was $10,000 in the Village Project account with an additional $2,000 that was expected from the fall registration money.

“I am sure any reasonable person will tear it down… the damage is so extensive if a building is going to be built, it won’t be a barn,” Paul Franklin, director of the Village Project said then.

In 1895, Franklin stopped the scheduling of events until a decision was made about the future of the barn, whether or not it would still be of student use or become a storage area.

The barn ended up being scheduled for demolition for Nov. 30, 1987 after reviewing the barn’s remains.

“The barn is really a mess, it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars to get it back into shape,” Franklin said then.

At the time the barn was insured for about $200,000 but according to Franklin, there was no plan for how much would be received and how it would be spent.

“Whatever money is available I want to see go into student space… The Oakland Center, expansion of Lepley, or a separate facility,” Franklin said then.

The barn was used as a theater from 1967-1983. 1984 is when the Studio Theater and recital hall in Varner began putting on the play performances.

The barn eventually underwent renovations between 2014-2015. It included a new foundation, new cedar roof shingles, new cupolas and a bright, fresh coat of “Light Mellow” yellow paint.

It also won an award, the barn was named 2016 Barn of the Year by Michigan Barn Preservation Network in the Non-Profit Agricultural or Adaptive Use category.