West Chester’s Uptown! Entertainment Alliance Sets Up Shop in the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory

New plans for the old West Chester armory should mean a more cultured borough.



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THINKING BIG: Uptown! Entertainment Alliance’s Tom McEvoy at West Chester’s old armory building. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
As with so many ideas—particularly in the arts—the impetus for West Chester’s Uptown! Entertainment Alliance came over a few drinks among friends. For Linda Foster, Tom McEvoy and Richard May, what had been an abstract fantasy morphed into a solid plan after a few killer vodka-and-grapefruit cocktails.

“I started talking about what would be great to have in West Chester,” recalls Foster, who chairs the alliance. “Like many folks, I’ve always wanted a theater in town. And Richard said, ‘You know what would be a perfect place for this?’ And we all said, ‘The armory.’”

Unlike Bryn Mawr, Phoenixville and Wayne, West Chester chose to demolish its historic movie theater. The Warner opened in 1930 and served as a movie house through the 1970s, when it was converted into a live venue. Not long after acquiring certification with the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, it closed. In 1986, the West Chester Borough Council made a fateful decision, and the Warner was basically leveled.

Four years later, downtown West Chester’s resurrection in the late 1990s brought renewed vibrancy. Soon, the Chester County Historical Society was doing its best to make up for the Warner’s loss, even hosting screenings for the budding West Chester Film Festival.

Meanwhile, the hometown Gilbert and Sullivan Society performed in space leased from West Chester University. Bars continued to host bands, and the Note arrived, providing a small but well-equipped concert space comparable to others on the Main Line and beyond.

But the void remained—that nagging absence of a larger venue dedicated solely to film and live performances. A number of residents honed in on the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory building that sits just a block from the Hotel Warner. The structure dates to 1916 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It housed the National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry and 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which traces its lineage directly to Benjamin Franklin, who formed the unit in 1747 to protect the Colonies in the French and Indian War.

The old brick building itself appears to be a perfect candidate for repurposing. Once inside, you find a large main floor with a few offices, meeting spaces and a gymnasium, along with an acoustically impressive vaulted ceiling. Downstairs, there’s plenty of space for classrooms and rehearsal areas. 

But the National Guard wasn’t going anywhere—or so everyone thought.
 

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