The streetscape of Downtown Pensacola has long been home to the iconic red and yellow façade of the REX Theater, but it’s been decades since the neon letters on the vertical marquee sign have been lit. While the brightly colored, retro storefront is a charming aspect of the Palafox strip just north of Garden Street, the space inside had been gutted and was in a dilapidated state for years.
Enter Harvest Church, the group that purchased and renovated the REX. Almost two years ago the group began discussions to purchase and renovate the building to use for services as well as other community events.
“When we started talking about this in mid-2013, it seemed like a whimsical dream,” says pastor and operations director Josh Stewart. “It seemed like just an idea that was never going to happen because we didn’t have the money to do it; we didn’t have the knowledge to make it happen. In my mind, we didn’t have anything at the time.”
Harvest is not a typical church in some ways. It has never held services in a traditional chapel, utilizing spaces like the Silver Screen and the Carmike Theaters in the past. Briefly Harvest was housed in its own building, which was badly damaged by Hurricane Ivan. Stewart says Harvest has maintained its nontraditional mobile services to help it be approachable and accessible to anyone, including people who may be uncomfortable in a traditional church setting.
The building that houses the REX is certainly not a conventional setting for church services, but the space works perfectly for that purpose. It held its first weekend services on March 1, but the history of the building itself stretches back a little over a century. It originally opened as the Rhodes Collins furniture store in 1910, and to this day the fading painted logo of that enterprise is visible on the outer north wall of the building. It was a three-story furniture store with pillars throughout the space holding up each level. Around 1937 when the space was converted into a theater, most of the second floor was removed to make room for the theater space, and the wood from the second story floor can now be seen in the ceiling of the theater area.
In the summer of 1938, Stewart discovered after doing some research that the first movie shown at the REX was In Old Chicago, a fictionalized drama centered on the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He says he’d like to show that movie for a grand reopening of the theater. The REX was open until 1977 when it shut its doors, only briefly reopening in the 80s as the REX Cinema & Draft House. The building has been bought and sold over the last few decades, but the daunting task of renovations and upgrading the structure has been prohibitive. While the newly renovated theater will now house Harvest’s services and activities, Stewart doesn’t consider it to be a church in itself. The group behind the organization recognized the strong desire within the community to see the REX reinvigorated, and they were eager to open it for those who attend their services as well as for the community.
“The impetus behind what we do is, of course, we are a church,” Stewart says. “The REX is not a church; the REX is a building, but Harvest, we are a church, so I guess one advantage we have coming into this is that this is not a business venture.”
The renovations that were necessary to make the REX into a useable, comfortable space were extensive. The three layers of concrete that were in varying slants and levels in the main theater needed to be demolished and removed using sledghammers and wheelbarrows. The third floor that had previously been attic space was turned into a mini theater with three smaller meeting rooms. While the nearly 15,000 square feet has been revamped, Stewart says they definitely wanted to keep some of the older aspects of the space that revealed its history and uniqueness. The exposed brick remains intact along the walls on each level, and the small platform that made up the small original stage was built out to make the space able to accommodate smallscale performance. The original proscenium is intact and will have a main curtain at the grand opening. The sign will be rewired and brought up to safety code, and then reinstalled with its lighted marquee.
There are other distinctive aspects of the building that the directors of Harvest Church noticed during renovations, like a faded mural in a stairwell of a woman standing on the beach holding a cigarette. No one knows exactly when or by whom it was painted, but the quirky artwork will be left intact and she’s been dubbed “The Lady of the REX.” The improvements to the REX were completed with architectural plans by Quina Grundhoefer Architects and Greenhut Construction at the helm of the renovations. Smart Bank worked with Harvest for financing the project. When the group began discussions of embarking on the project, they knew that financing would be a difficulty they’d face, but once they were committed to buying and renovating the REX, they found that many were supportive of the plan.
“We said, OK, the REX is it. We’re going all in, every resource we have is going to go toward this,” he says. “We’re going to sell everything we can sell, we’re going to ask the congregation if they’re behind us to let us know.”
About 150 more people than usual attended the first service in the building, many curious about the newly improved theater. The main theater has 169 new fixed stadium seats and another 231 matching removable seats on the ground floor. Stewart says many in the congregation have given positive feedback on the old-meetsnew space. The church utilizes the same audio visual equipment, a projector and speakers it had before coming to the space, though they plan to get newer technology in the future. The screen on the back wall is one that the group had sitting in storage that just happened to perfectly fit the space. Since the project’s early stages, Harvest has communicated its desire to open the REX up to uses outside of church services, and inviting in the public for a variety of events. Already some screenings have been held in the third floor mini theater as part of the Pensacola Film Festival last March. That event was worked out between Jim Norton, who is involved with the Film Festival, and Stewart, but the facility won’t be open for official rentals until the details are hammered out in a rental agreement and other paperwork some time in May or soon after.
“There are three uses for the REX: it’s going to have Harvest weekend services, community enrichment activities and events, and it’s going to have a select number of rentals. And honestly, I’m figuring out number one first,” Stewart says. “As a church, we’ve got to make sure that we’re serving the 500-plus people that attend. That’s step one.”
While events held at the REX will not have to be religious by any means, Stewart says they will develop guidelines for events at the venue to be family friendly. They also plan to participate in Gallery Night events once everything is up and running, and hopefully invite the public in for tours and concerts. Stewart hopes to one day see theatrical performances on the stage, though the small backstage area would necessitate only smaller productions. Some time in April a grand opening will be held, where anyone can come check out the newly revitalized REX Theater, but Stewart says there’s much more in store for the future of the REX.
“My vision for this facility, not even as a church really, is for it to be used seven days a week and for the lights to always be on for something cool happening here, to where anybody could just come down here and say, ‘hey, let’s go to fill-in-the-blank at the REX,’” he says. “There’s already so many reasons to come down here, but to add to that, I guess, would be our vision.”
For updates and information about the REX, visit rexpensacola. com or harvestpensacola.com.