February 16, 2017

100 Years Of Life: The Rehabilitation Of Richmond's Carpenter Theatre

  • By: Meghan White
New acoustic clouds for the orchestra are designed to look like actual clouds at the Carpenter Theater

photo by: Robert Benson Photography

The Carpenter Theatre's interior recalls an outdoor Mediterranean courtyard.

Early in 2002, the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation and Wilson Butler Architects coordinated a comprehensive master plan for Richmond, Virginia’s art scene. The goal was to revitalize the community by bringing in more arts and entertainment while providing updated spaces for Richmond’s symphony orchestra, ballet, and opera, as well as for smaller arts programs. Of the four theaters chosen to be included in the master plan, the Carpenter Theatre was selected as the first to be rehabilitated.

From the outset, the principals of the firm charged with designing the theater’s renovation knew it would present intriguing challenges. Bruce Herrmann, director at Wilson Butler, sums it up in a question: “How do you capture the character and spirit of a building and renovate it at the same time?”

The largest piece of the puzzle was that the project encompassed not one existing building, but two, and that they were built in very different styles. That is the kind of puzzle, though, that people like Herrmann are eager to address.

John Eberson, a well-known theater architect of the 20th century, designed the Carpenter as a movie theater. It opened in April of 1928 to a full house. With its Moorish and Spanish Revival architecture, the Carpenter reflected both the character of Eberson's style and the imaginative predilection toward the arts in the 1920s.

Eberson designed the theater to impress both outside and inside. Its facade is dominated by a corner tower extending six stories. Terracotta decorations adorn the exterior in the form of finials, pilasters, and diamonds. He turned the interior into a Baroque Spanish palace with stucco walls, paintings, tapestries, and grilled windows.

The auditorium was designed as an outdoor Mediterranean garden, complete with an eye-catching array of color and ornamentation. The original plaster ceiling, for example, was painted blue to represent the sky, while faux ivy crawled up the walls, much to the delight of the theater's patrons.

An early theater-goer described the effect, explaining that “going into the theatre was like going out of doors, except it was raining out of doors. Stars twinkled in a cerulean ceiling and clouds drifted slowly by.”

1927 Photo of The Carpenter Theater in Richmond VA as the Loew's Movie Theater

photo by: Dementi Studios

The Carpenter Theatre opened in 1928 as the Loew's Movie Cinema, as seen here in this historic photograph.

With its fantastic flair, it contrasted sharply—almost brutally—with the 1950s Post-War department store adjacent to the theater in the same block. It had been empty for some time.

Though the department store seemed to contrast with the theater in every way, the building ended up being the solution to several design snags that arose from modifying a historic space to comply with modern safety codes and comfort levels.

The existing elevator, for example, did not comply with modern regulations, and replacing it risked corrupting the theater's historic fabric. The bathrooms in the theater were small and inefficient and led to long waits at intermission. To resolve these issues, Wilson Butler and contractors from Gilbane-Christman utilized the space in the department store, installing elevators and restrooms, and cleverly converting the old restrooms into concession stands.

To add to the puzzle of incorporating two separate buildings, the floors of the department store and the theater did not align. To correct it, Wilson Butler designed connections such as ramps, elevators, and stairs to join the floors.

Wilson Butler ensured that their renovations to the historic building were reflective of Eberson's original vision. The theater is known as an atmospheric theater due to the way he designed it to have patrons feel like they were relaxing under a night sky. It is one of the few Eberson atmospheric theaters that exist today.

To preserve the theater's original finishes that contributed to its unique function, Evergreene Architectural Arts reconstructed plasterwork and led the historic paint restoration.Wilson Butler enhanced the outdoor feel in the auditorium by installing fiber optic twinkling lights in the ceiling. Acoustic clouds, a common item in theaters and auditoriums to carry sound from the stage, were playfully designed to appear as literal clouds (seen in the first picture above).

"It makes you smile," Herrmann notes.

Because the theater and the department store, dubbed the CenterStage Performing Arts Complex, doubled in size, the additional space became the Libby Gottwald Community Play House, Rhythm Hall rehearsal room, and BrightLights Education Center. The complex opened in 2009; in 2016, it was renamed the Dominion Arts Center.

“The buildings fit together even though they’re from two different time periods,” concludes Herrmann.

The Carpenter, which is listed on the National Register, has long been recognized—practically since opening day—as one of the most architecturally impressive theaters that contributes to the commercial sector of downtown Richmond. With the financial help of federal and state historic tax credits, the Carpenter's rehabilitation has brought life back into Richmond's art scene and preserved an important icon to the city.

“Rarely do you get a chance to design something that should have 100 years or more of life," says Herrmann on having the opportunity to work with the Carpenter Theatre. "[Historic structures] have a tremendous amount to give back.”

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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