Renovation as Education

by Lisa Mulcahy

The interior of the Sun TheatreA historic theatre is brought back to vivid life—and theatre students benefit

The enduring spirit of a time-honored theatrical space always serves to inspire—and there’s no better example of this than the Sun Theatre in St. Louis, Mo. A glorious house dating back more than 100 years that had fallen into terrible ruin, the Sun now has a new lease on life, thanks to a full restoration. What’s even better: the newly renovated theatre is now fully accessible to the Grand Center Arts Academy, a grade 6-12 performance-based school, which uses the Sun’s space for performances, classes and rehearsals. The building’s history is now helping to inform and educate a new generation of theatre artists. 

Sun Theatre before renovationsThe Theatre’s Trajectory

The Sun, originally known as the Victoria Theatre, began its lauded life back in 1913, as a venue exclusively for German language productions. The playhouse flourished until WWI, when it closed due to a strong anti-German sentiment thanks to the war. It stayed closed until 1943, when it opened as the Hi-Hat club, though eventually that shuttered as well. It reopened as a movie house known as the Liberty after the war in the 1940s. Throughout subsequent decades, the theatre morphed into a burlesque house, then a church meeting space, eventually a gentlemen’s club, until its doors finally shut in 1969. Sadly, this classically designed jewel of a space became a complete wreck once it was abandoned—its walls caved in, its roof was full of holes (and eventually collapsed), and its gorgeous façade and interior were vandalized on numerous occasions. 

 All was not lost, though. The Grand Center Arts Academy moved into facilities on the same street as the Sun in 2010. Administrators at Grand Center had the brilliant idea to raise money to renovate the theatre for their students’ benefits as well as for the community at large. The Lawrence Group, a highly respected design/construction firm, welcomed the challenge of taking on a massive renovation/restoration. “When we looked at the project, using the whole area of the building, the school using this space to perform and teach was a very interesting idea,” says Aaron Bunse, lead designer/project manager for the Lawrence Group. ”Working on it initially, we got some very good input from the school, regarding things, for instance, like house seating capacity.”

With an $11.5 million dollar budget raised with the help enthusiastic supporters from the community the restoration of the Sun began in earnest in January 2013. The goal from the very start of the project was to resurrect the Sun’s original beauty in perfect detail. The venue was to be improved with state of the art installations such as new technical equipment, classrooms actually built into the mainstage house itself, spacious rehearsal rooms and a completely restored building façade.

Minding the Details

As the project began, the restoration team noted that the bones of the building were actually in fine shape—the building’s cosmetic aspects, however, needed very extensive and specific work. Their first priority: respecting the historical aspects of its design.

“The challenge with this space, I think, was identifying the historical aspects we could afford to keep,” Bunse explains. “We worked with local historical offices here in St. Louis in order to do this accurately. Once we identified the things we wanted to preserve in this way, the next challenge became, how do we carry it out?” 

The stage and flyloft of the theatreTo help with carrying out the stagecraft portion of things Bunse and The Lawrence Group turned to iWeiss and the head of their Chicago office, Russ Dusek. Dusek worked with both entities to create a timeline for the renovation and keep everything on track. “No installation ever goes exactly like it looks on paper,” jokes Dusek. “With a building of this age, sometimes there’s all kinds of different surprises inside the wall once you get going.” The original scope of iWeiss involvement only included a motorized fire curtain, a traveling main curtain and a valance but as they proceeded their scope widened to include masking curtains, a rear traveler and a cyc. And soon some of the challenges involved in working with an old building became clear. Originally designed as a hemp house, the theatre’s grid iron was not ideally laid out for the dead-hung drapery rigging. With some clever bridling they ended up resolving the load to structural steel, and everything moved forward. A full rigging system is in the planning stages, but whether it will be a counterweight system (which would have to deal with the obstructions posed by existing galleries designed for a hemp system) or motorized system  (easier to install with the existing loading galleries, but much more expensive) is still being decided.

“We have had a few conversations about doing some stuff going forward,” adds Dusek. “I’d love to see that happen. I love to see these old girls put back together. There’s something really neat about a theatre like this with all its history. You can just walk into them and picture these acts from the ‘20s, ‘30s or ‘40s. To be able to breathe life back into them and get them moving with new artists—or artists who are learning—I think that’s a great thing.” 

Bunse is in total agreement about the beauty and history present in classic stage houses, and wanted to keep one very important aspect of it: the plasterwork. “The largest impact, I think, that we wanted to make, and keep, historically, had to do with the plaster detailing around the theatre’s proscenium. We couldn’t decide whether to keep it and restore it, or whether it might be better to tear it down and install something more modern. In the end, we kept the original, and that was the right thing to do—it turned out very well."  

An extremely careful analysis of the plaster design, in addition to thorough historical research, ultimately allowed the Lawrence Group to achieve an accurate and beautiful effect. The Woemmel Plaster Company assisted in this regard; the plaster restoration technique that was used was the precise technique, using rubber molding, that had been originally employed at the theatre’s construction. 

The needs of the Grand Center Arts Academy, of course, were also paramount—the theatre had to be able to accommodate theatrical productions and rehearsals, plus stagecraft classes, not to mention orchestra and choral performances. A unique plan was hatched: classrooms could actually be built at the back of the house balcony in a tiered fashion, against the rear wall. ”It was very important to take the shape and size of the classrooms into account, overall,” says Bunse. “We needed to add things like a control room as well.” Once these areas were built in, Bunse turned his attention to the outside façade of the theatre, which was carefully restored as well. 

 The color scheme of the 1,500 seat house is a beautifully repainted robin’s egg blue, with corresponding color on the vast ceiling. Small “amphitheatres” (rooms designed to resemble miniature versions of traditional amphitheatres) were also built into various areas throughout the building, allowing for small student productions to be rehearsed and performed. 

The project was completed during the 2013-14 school year, allowing Grand Center Arts Academy students to almost immediately take advantage of their amazing new environment. ”At the theatre’s grand opening, the students and teachers put on a wonderful production,” Bunse recalls. “Students performed a show about the history of the building—in the show, a ghost told the story of its history, and portions of different plays were performed that illustrated parts of the building’s history. It was great to see the space be used in such a creative way.” There’s still work to be done, however. “We are not quite at the next level yet when it comes to lighting and sound for the theatre,” says Bunse. “In terms of the theatre’s technical aspects, future growth is going to be the real trick. Hopefully, funding will allow better systems to be installed, and the space will be even more beneficial to students and audiences.”

The exterior of the renovated SunA Teacher’s Perspective

From an educational and creative standpoint, Grand Arts Academy personnel could not be more delighted with the opportunities the Sun restoration/renovation affords its students. “The uniqueness of the program here has to do with its vibrant energy,” says Shaun Sheley, a drama instructor at the academy. “The school, and the theatre department is, to me, really like a wonderful playground for its students, with a quality academic focus. The theatre, besides being so gorgeous, can be used in so many different ways, which allows our students to learn so much more.” 

Sheley recalls first walking in to the house with his acting students in the fall of 2013. “We got into the space to work on the show for the opening of the theatre,” Sheley recalls. “The students were in awe! I think from that first day, the beautiful jewel box this space is really inspired the students to up their game. It gives a frame of reference to studying theatre—a space like this says ‘your focus and dedication is required here.’ Some of our students hadn’t ever been in a theatre of any kind before—and here they are in such a great space. It raises the bar for everyone, and I think the environment really helps them understand the process of theatre so much more clearly as well.”

 Sheley feels that the sky is truly the limit in terms of what working, and learning, in the Sun, can provide the next generation of theatre artists. “The entire space is such a source of pride within my students, and within the school,’ he sums up. “I’ll take my acting class into a beautiful, open room, and watch my students want to do their best. This is as important as the beautifully restored building will be for years to come.”