HERE COMES THE SUN! Sun Theater reopens as a performing arts center
By Eileen P. Duggan
Originally published in the West End Word, June 4, 2014
After 40 years of dormancy, the 101-year-old Sun Theatre, 3527 Grandel Square, has finally been restored to and beyond its former glory.
The former movie theater reopened May 10, 2014 with a grand gala to benefit the Grand Center Arts Academy, a city charter school that will use the theater for its performing arts programs.
The theater originally opened March 2, 1913 as the Victoria Theatre, a German-language opera house. German culture fell out of favor during World War I, and the theater emerged after the war as the William Fox Liberty Theatre movie house. Fox abandoned it after he built the larger, grander Fox Theatre.
Over the years, the Sun became the World Burlesque, the Hi-Hat Club, the 400 Club and The Lotus Club. In 1950 it picked up the Sun name, then shortly after became the Lyn. A church took over in the late 1960s.
On May 22, 2014, the Sun hosted Landmarks Association of St. Louis’ annual Most Enhanced Awards ceremony — most appropriately, considering that the Sun is one of this year’s record number of 17 honored buildings.
“I’m excited to be part of it, and we’re thrilled that we’ve been able to bring this wonderful gem of a building,” said Stephen A. Smith, principal of The Lawrence Group, which owns and restored the building.
Renovation of the Sun was on the to-do list of Grand Center Inc. and developers for about three decades. But things never worked out for the Sun, also known as the Lyn Theater and many other monikers over its century-long life.
It was only when The Lawrence Group came into the picture bearing soon-to-expire historic tax credits that restoration looked like a reality.
“What really made this financially viable was the arts academy,” said Smith, who owns the building as a principal of TLG Beaux Arts LLC. “With the academy we had a tenant with the financial strength to support the project. You have a charter school that’s been open for several years and it’s prospering. The students come from very diverse backgrounds, the test scores are among the highest in the St. Louis area. It has in its young history a very successful charter school, and that allowed us to make the investment to restore the Sun Theatre.”
TLG Beaux Arts also renovated the old Carter Carburetor building at 711 N. Grand Blvd., across from Powell Hall, for the Arts Academy, which opened in 2011. When the company began planning the purchase and renovation of the Sun Theatre just around the corner, the intent was to create a theater to serve the charter school’s mission, Smith said.
To assist with the $10 million project, the Lawrence Group used $4 million in state and federal historic preservation tax credits from the Clinton era that were about to expire.
The Sun had not been occupied for about 40 years, since the Faith Tabernacle Church moved out in about 1972. Before TLG could even begin the restoration, portions of the west wall masonry collapsed after a storm.
“Our challenge was to get that secure so the building didn’t fall down.” Smith said.
Another challenge arose when workers started to restore the historic ceiling inside the theater. “We discovered one of the structural members was about ready to collapse. If the ceiling had fallen in, the entire building would have fallen apart,” Smith said.
Again, TLG saved the day and the ceiling now has an ornate medallion with inset energy-efficient light bulbs. Below, the proscenium opening around the stage has been restored to the original colorful plaster moldings, one of Smith’s favorite features.
The 1,600-seat main theater has been reduced to 600 seats, with 380 seats on the main level and the remainder on the balcony. The theater retains the original mezzanine level boxes. Behind the balcony, the developers built three classrooms, one of which is the former film projection room. The second floor features a multipurpose room with three original arched windows that look out over the front entrance.
The marble-floored lobby retains the original molding design. Staircases on either side were victims of marble thieves over the years, so workers recreated them. The shiny brass ceiling medallion is the original, although the light fixture is new.
The Sun’s exterior has been restored to its neoclassical façade featuring glazed cream terra cotta, a garland-trimmed cornice, framed brick panels, grotesques and large arched windows. An addition was built on the east side to accommodate an elevator and a service stairwell.
The academy will use the building for dance and theatrical performances as well as classes, rehearsals and film screenings. The theater is not yet equipped with lighting riggings or a sound system, but it has a sound booth ready for state-of-the-art equipment, said Dan Rubright, director of the Grand Center Arts Academy.
The school, which encompasses grades six to 10, has been making do with dance studios, a small black box theater and the cafeteria in the school building as well as rented space for its performances.
“We’ve had to beg, borrow or steal space to present shows,” Rubright said. “You can only ask for favors for so long. Having this space is a huge relief. Finally we have a home.”
The theater also will be available for rent by both for-profit and not-for-profit groups. Smith’s side company, Urban Canvas Events and Spaces, will handle rentals and is seeking primary partners whose missions match the school’s.
TLG owns both the theatre and the school building, as well as the former Earthways House in between. The three structures are now grouped into a campus. Grand Center Arts Academy leases the theater and the school with options to buy. Renting the space out will help the academy pay its own rent.
Grand Center Arts Academy
Grand Center Arts Academy is a charter school sponsored by Saint Louis University focusing on drama, dance, music, choral music and visual arts. Like any other state school, GCAA offers a vigorous academic schedule. It will have 700 students in grades six through 11 in fall 2014. The following year, the school will add 12th grade for a total of 800 students.
“Our students will have access to a space that many professionals don’t have,” said Keith Williams, GCAA’s director of Dance and Theatre. “It’s really an incredible opportunity. We are serving the community, and the community get to be a part of the development that’s going on.”
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Grand Center Arts Academy: http://www.grandcenterartsacademy.org/