The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, June 23, 2017

Under renovation: Flint's historic Capitol Theatre: 'Probably the greatest unrestored movie palace in the United States'

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

FLINT -  Welcome to the city's newly renovated living room. There are plenty of comfortable seats, about 1,600. Refreshments are available nearby. You will be glad you came, with great entertainment right before your eyes. And you can't beat the atmosphere.

That's what residents of the city and the region have to look forward to later this year at Second and Harrison streets downtown, when the Christman Co., its subcontractors and the building trades are expected to complete the wholesale renovation of an architectural jewel, the Capitol Theatre.

Completed in 1928, the Capitol opened as a vaudeville house and later operated as a movie theatre and concert venue. It showed its last movie in 1976, and the last live concert was held about 20 years ago. 
Over the past two decades, the community is extremely fortunate that the building's roof remained intact and the interior untouched by urban scavengers. The building was mothballed with the heat kept on, awaiting a savior, which turned out to be the nonprofit Uptown Reinvestment Corp. and a leading partner The Whiting, a member of the Flint Cultural Center Corp.

"When we reopen, we plan to turn the building back to how it was used when it was open, as the gathering place for the community; the community's living room." said Jarret Haynes, executive director of The Whiting. Haynes pointed out that renovating historic theatres, including the Fox Theatre in Detroit, has been a common catalyst for economic revitalization for various cities. "Yes, you can say that this is a game-changer, a catalyst for Flint," he added. "But most cities have spurred revitalization efforts through the performing arts."

The building trades began the renovation work on the theatre in July 2016 under a 14-16 month timeline. The theatre will be managed as a nonprofit performing arts center. With approximately 100 events
of varying sizes projected per year, the revitalized Capitol Theatre is expected to attract more than 60,000 visitors annually. The restoration of the Capitol is part of a $37 million campaign that includes select upgrades to The Whiting Auditorium in the city's cultural center.

A promotional video by sponsors of the project consulted theatre restoration architect Paul Westland, who said the era of building opulent theatres in the U.S. really only took place during a sliver of the last century, the decade of the 1920s. He said two dominant architectural styles emerged: the classical theatre, and "atmospheric" style.

"And that latter style was invented by John Eberson, who was probably the most famous of all the designers of American movie palaces," Westland said, "and he designed the Capitol Theatre in Flint. So you have in this community a true treasure. You have a unique building type but you also have a theatre designed by the greatest architect of this building type right at the tipping  point of talking movies, right at the apex of the style of the atmospheric environment, which simulated an outdoor environment. 

"So it is one of the great treasures in America and it is probably the greatest unrestored movie palace in the United States."

The design team plans to "faithfully restore historically significant elements of the Theatre’s
original design" including:

*Recreation  of  the  building’s  original 1928 façade, including restoration of terracotta ornamentation on the building’s exterior;

*Restoration of the ceiling within the auditorium which will once again evoke the open skies, 
enhanced by lighting effects that will mimic transitions from sunset to dusk to the night sky (hence the atmospheric theatre);

*Restoration and recreation of decorative plasterwork and statuary throughout the theater lobby, 
and interstitial spaces connecting front and back of house amenities, as well as spaces between the theater
and adjacent offices;

*Updating historic  lighting  and  fixtures throughout,  including  installation  of  state-of-the-art performance lighting;

*Reproduction of original theater seats; 

*Restoration of the historic marquee and vertical blade sign;

*Enhancement  of  the  theatre’s  lighting,  acoustic,  seating,  backstage  and  front-of-house facilities

*The creation of an additional performance space on the lower level for small scale, experimental 
workshops and performances.

After its run as a movie house, the Capitol hosted concerts in the 1970s and later, including AC/DC, Ray Charles, John Mellencamp and Mel Tillis. It closed in 1996.

Haynes said "the building was in fantastic shape," when renovations began, "and that's a testament to the original quality craftsmanship and design that went into the building. That has allowed us to focus on being respectful to the restorative architectural work and maintaining the theatre experience."

Eberson's design had the Capitol resembling an Italian garden. It has outdoor elements like sunrise and sunset effects,  as well as clouds and stars in the sky on the ceiling. It was originally a 2,000-seat venue, but hundreds of seats will be removed as part of the renovation. The building's footprint also contains 25,000 square feet of office and retail space, and lower level 30,000 square feet of versatile space, originally housing a bowling alley, billiard area and diner.

The original program opening the Capitol Theatre in 1928 began with this greeting: "Welcome to the Capitol Theatre, a touch of Italy transferred in its seductive charms to the City of Flint. Here ancient culture and art rub shoulders with the ultra-modern art of the cinema. With a heavy handclasp, we bid you a cordial welcome and trust that the hours spent within the shrine of entertainment will be the means of making your days more joyful."

And there are more joyful days ahead. "With the nice attention to detail that we're seeing with the craftsmanship here today, there's no reason the Capitol won't last another 90 years," Haynes said.