Decades before air conditioning became common in even the fanciest buildings, the Historic Artcraft Theatre was offering audiences cool air during their movie-watching experience.

A turbine fan pulled air in from the outside, while water was drawn out of an 85-foot well in the Artcraft’s basement. That water went into sprayers, and ductwork introduced that cool, misty air into the main theater room.

As the mist evaporated, the air grew cooler.

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“The swamp cooler was pretty advanced at the time. This was one of the first, if not the first, building in Franklin to get air conditioning,” said Rob Shilts, executive director of Franklin Heritage, which operates the Artcraft.

After 81 years, Artcraft officials are updating their classic swamp cooler system for a more modern version. The historic movie palace is in the midst of a $300,000 upgrade to its heating, venting and air conditioning system that will provide more reliable climate control for patrons throughout the year.

The work is made possible with a Franklin Redevelopment Commission grant awarded late in 2015. Tearing out the old system started in early April, with the hope for the new system to be in place by June.

The Artcraft specializes in classic and old-time movies. But organizers don’t want every aspect of people’s moviegoing experience to be antiquated, Shilts said.

“Back when this place opened up, if it was warm or stuffy, people just dealt with it. Today’s generation lives in an air-conditioned house, gets into an air-conditioned car, works in an air-conditioned office,” he said. “Everything is air conditioned, and then they come to a movie here, it’s too much.”

In the catacombs of the Artcraft basement, the remains of the primitive cooling system are still in place.

Workers have removed much of the main machinery, but the swamp cooler’s motor sits off to the side. An antique electrical panel, looking like something out of Frankenstein’s lab, is mounted to the wall.

Piping still extends into the well.

“There’s a lot of urban archeology going on down here,” Shilts said.

The swamp cooler was installed in 1935. The system was retro-fitted into a space on the theater’s lower level, Shilts said. Workers put in wide, curved openings to direct the air at just the right angle up into the ducts.

Flathead screws were installed by hand to hold the entire thing together.

“It was a pretty ingenious system to put into a new building. But to do it in an existing space and just kind of fit it in is amazing,” Shilts said. “I can’t imagine how many people it took to get everything down here and figure it out.”

Workers have cut up and disassembled the machinery for the old system. Portions of the wooden ductwork have been torn apart, though officials have kept sections where former maintenance man Harold “Bud” Stout signed his name in paint to the exterior wood pieces.

The new system is a modern HVAC model, supercooling air and distributing it through the seating area. Theater officials will be able to reliably cool and heat the theater when temperatures get extreme in Indiana.

Shilts has worked with Franklin Community High School to analyze its attendance and utility costs. The results have shown that when the weather dipped in mid-winter and then rose into the 80s and 90s in the summer, the theater saw its worst-attended events.

The hope is to get the entire project finished by early June, in time for the Glenn Miller Orchestra concert scheduled for June 7.

To hit the target finish date, the different aspects of the project are happening simultaneously, making for logistical challenges for theater operators.

“We have an insulation team working, a demolition team working and a mechanical team working, all at once,” Shilts said. “It’s one big plan, but it’s organized chaos.”

Workers are preparing the ceiling structure for the new ductwork, which will be installed during the next month.

The project also includes new insulation in the attic, to retain the heat and cooling.

With the new heating and cooling system, the Artcraft will cross off another of the major aspects of its total renovation.

Work has been ongoing since Franklin Heritage purchased the theater in 2004. Workers have replaced the ceiling, overhauled the facade, replaced the blade sign out front and added modern screens, sound and electronics to make a better movie-going experience.

The hope is that all renovations are completed by 2022, the 100th anniversary of the theater.

Repairs and renovations to the stage will likely be the next high-priority item to be tackled, Shilts said. The work done with Franklin Community High School helped them distinguish the most pressing needs moving forward.

“We have a game plan now. We have a map right now where we can see what to do next and what to do after that,” Shilts said.

The work will also allow for expanded programs, as Shilts works to bring more concerts and live events throughout the year.

“It’s a big venue for drawing people in from outside of Franklin. We get Hamilton County people coming in droves,” Shilts said. “The fact it has been up and booming, think what’s going to happen now in the summer when people don’t have to worry about being too hot.”

At a glance

Historic Artcraft Theatre renovation

Current project: Installing new heating, venting and air conditioning system.

Cost: $300,000, made possible with grant from Franklin Redevelopment Commission

What has to be done:

  • Former swamp cooler system has to be removed
  • Wooden ductwork taken apart and removed
  • Theater attic reinforced to handle new ductwork
  • Cooling and heating systems installed

When it will be done: Early June

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.