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Karamu House continues major campus renovations with $4 million from Mandel Foundation

Photo of Karamu House's exterior
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
Karamu House, founded in 1915, is the oldest Black theater in the country. Since 2017, its facility on Cleveland's East Side has been undergoing a major expansion and renovation.

Karamu House just received a major boost toward its next production: a new education wing.

The 108-year-old theater on Cleveland’s East Side has been working for 18 months with the Mandel Foundation. The result is up to $4 million matching funds toward the wing, with new classrooms and offices for the oldest Black theater in the country.

Karamu CEO Tony Sias said it’s the fourth and likely final phase of construction on a campus-wide update that began in 2017.

“I'm optimistic that in a perfect world, if fundraising goes the way we hope it will, that we'll be able to break ground with phase four construction sometime in late 2024,” he said.

Sias said the new section would be slated to open in late 2025. It’s the capstone to the largest refurbishment for the theater’s E. 89th Street campus, which was completed in 1959. Over the past six years, they’ve added a new roof, renovated their largest theater and added a gift shop, lounge, gallery and box office. Currently, phase three of the work is underway to add a bistro, renovate their outdoor stage and make the entire facility ADA accessible.

“Having public access from the north side of the building to the south side of the building is key to this phase of renovation,” he said. “We just want to increase the foot traffic during business hours… and be able to really be a place for all Cleveland to come, whether it's theater, whether it's to come see our... archives on exhibition, whether it's education, programming or some of our community programs.”

Cleveland City Council authorized $500,000 toward the third phase of renovations, which Sias said will allow them to move toward matching the $4 million pool of funds from the Mandel Foundation.

“We have not publicly announced the cost of phase four,” he said. “More information will be coming about the cost of that. Our goal is to, at a minimum, raise the balance of the $4 million, so it's a complete match.”

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.