[10 on Tuesday] 10 Steps for Restoring Historic Theaters

Posted on: December 31st, 2013 by Julia Rocchi 9 Comments

PreservationNation blog readers love historic theaters with a capital LOVE, reading and liking and commenting in overdrive whenever we share a restoration or reuse story. And really, what’s not to love? Theaters evoke wonderful memories of experiencing art, enjoying architecture, and spending time with loved ones.

Plus, historic theaters are proven community revitalizers and economic drivers. Not only do they generate an impact of at least $2-$3 per dollar spent on tickets, but they also catalyze other business development, create jobs, and improve the local quality of life.

But restoring a historic theater is no small undertaking. In fact, the average historic theater project costs between $5 and $30 million, opens in 5 to 10 years from inception, and requires dozens of consultants. In this toolkit, we share the essential steps in bringing a historic theater back to life so it can be the site of many more happy memories to come.

1. Set concrete goals. The first question to answer is, “Should we or shouldn’t we undertake this project?” Assemble all relevant community, program, historical, and site documentation. Study theater business and design principles. Evaluate the demand for the theater, as well as its proposed business models. And take advantage of information from the League of Historic American Theatres (LHAT) and other local professional resources for guidance.

2. Consult the community. Interview key stakeholders to figure out the community’s perceived needs, proposed mission and programs, market conditions and the facility’s suitability (what shape is it in, what size, type, etc.) Once you know how viable the project is, you can justify further planning.

Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, Calif. Credit: Orpheum Theatre
Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, Calif.

3. Stabilize and secure the site. Consult with a preservation theater architect and your state historic preservation office (SHPO) to help you determine the site’s historic significance, integrity, and interim stabilization. Do your best to negotiate access, site security, stabilization, and first right of refusal to purchase.

4. Plan out your finances. “How much will it cost?” It’s the first question asked, and the last one answered accurately. Ballpark the potential scale and scope of the project (and don’t publicize it). Extrapolate a planning budget from there; it will likely be 3-10% of your project cost. And start identifying possible sources of funding for your project planning.

5. Develop a project management plan. Robust plans encompass the project’s goals, respond to community needs, and map out implementation. It’s important to methodically study, re-plan, and document the project management process. You can initiate this with a feasibility study.

Tip: Project management plans should include: mission statements and program goals; project goals and design criteria; deadlines, budgets, and policies; marketing and development strategies; operating structure; project team and job descriptions; action plans; financial plan and cash flow projections; and construction milestones.

6. Implement your plan. Confirm your financing is in place to guarantee fees, salaries, and initial project costs. Recruit a board chairperson, capital campaign chair, experienced executive director, technical director, project manager, design team, and construction manager.

7. Contract project consultants. The architectural design principal should have specific training and experience in theater design and restoration. This principal should then coordinate the engineering consultants, technical theater consultants, restoration consultants, and construction management. (They can be selected with owner input.)

State Theatre, Sioux Falls, N.D. Credit: Nick Weiland
State Theatre, Sioux Falls, S.D.

8. Look for comprehensive services. Seek out firms that provide the following preservation architectural services: site research, investigation, and analysis; design development; construction documents; bidding, negotiations, construction contracts; and construction and contract administration.

9. Start up your business. Though construction might still be in full swing, you’ll need to activate your business model. In advance of opening, book your programs (12-18 months in advance), solicit sponsors, and raise funds. Recruit and train your facility staff. Plan your opening week events. Figure out your furniture, equipment, signage, and other inventory. And don’t forget any licenses you need, as well as concession and hospitality contracts.

10. Market your project effectively. Before the curtain rises, establish a distinctive position for your theater. What are the values that will reflect future programming and guide the branding of theater? Is it to be a formal or informal environment? What kind of service and hospitality will it offer to set it apart from other theaters and attractions? Also, develop audience engagement strategies to build your membership, donor base, and audience loyalty.

A historic theater project done right can enliven the neighborhood, reinvigorate the community, and keep a beautiful place around for future generations. Tell us about your community’s historic theater in the comments!

Adapted from the League of Historic American Theatres Rescue-Rehab Manual. Information courtesy of Janis A. Barlow & Associates.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the director of digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

10 on Tuesday, Restoration, Revitalization, Tools

9 Responses

  1. Jim Nelson

    December 31, 2013

    Great article and I am glad every time I see a story about restoring historic theaters, because these often forgotten pieces of our communities are great landmarks that need to be remembered and treasured.

    Jim Nelson
    creator of Historic Theaters of Salt Lake City

  2. Sarah Carlson

    January 1, 2014

    I was elated to see a photo of the State Theater used in your story. It’s a great example of hard work by good people.

    However, the photo location is incorrect. Sioux Falls is the largest city in South Dakota, home of Mount Rushmore.

    Not North Dakota.

    Thank you,

  3. PresNation

    January 2, 2014

    Good catch, Sarah! I corrected it.

    Thank you,

    Julia Rocchi
    Associate Director, Digital Content

  4. Jean Mackay

    January 2, 2014

    Thanks for the tips. We’ll share your link with historic theaters in the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. We have many that have been restored and that are in the process of restoration. Here’s a link to our online Arts Guide, including Historic Theaters:

  5. Dennis Gallagher

    January 24, 2014

    Thanks for the attention on old theaters. In Denver Kirk and Samantha Scheitler and lots of us are working to save the old Elitch Theatre in North Denver. It may be the oldest Summer Stock Theatre once in operation in the country.

    Exterior is finished, now begins the daunting task of finishing the inside, seats and stage and dressing room areas. I worked as a stage hand when in highschool and college.

    Grace Kelly and many theatre greats trod across these hisoric boards. Email me and I will send you the website. Dennis Gallagher, city auditor.

  6. Dennis Gallagher

    January 24, 2014

    My email is: dennis.gallagher@denvergov.org

  7. Don Devine

    January 24, 2014

    My son, Jack, and I, restored and converted the Tally HoTheatre in downtown Leesburg, Virginia last year. Now be it known that The Tally Ho was not a grand theater; just your typical southern downtown art deco movie house built in 1932 with a stage for a piano. We converted it to a single theatre from a twin which was a modification done in 1980 to try to keep up with the multiplexes. Our approach was market and zoning driven and we accomplished it in less than four months by working around the clock and being creative.
    We have now been open a year with the help of volunteers who love music (and of course paid staff as well) and we’re happy to say we have operated in positive territory our first year.
    By returning the theatre essentially to it’s original design with a retail front for a restaurant and keeping the assembly use (the same as it had always been) we were able to restore it and create an adaptive re-use for the property at the same time.
    With long experience restoring and reusing old structures I’ve learned to rely on zoning and modern construction methods and materials and less on “consultants”. These projects simply aren’t viable after a parade of architects, planners, environmental engineers, structural engineers, city planners… the list goes on, has a bite at the apple. Engineers and architects are necessary, however, one must have the overall vision and plan decided upon before consulting these folks or it may be a waste of time and money. You must plan around the existing zoning, market, and structure conditions.
    The most important key to success is that there must be a commercially viable end use for the theatre or similar structure – all decisions then flow from accommodating that use. Honestly the same concerns the folks had that initially created and constructed the theaters to begin with.
    I’m happy to give any of you a tour of the Tally Ho when you are in the DcMetro area, and, for that matter we’re real close to the National Trust headquarters. They could come and see the new face of preservation in action. TallyHoLeesburg.com

  8. Don Devine

    January 24, 2014

    My email is ddevine@devinecommercial.com

  9. Anne Cheek La Rose

    January 24, 2014

    The Inglewood Historic Preservation Alliance has worked for the past 5 years to save the Fox Theatre on Market Street in Inglewood, California.
    We have raised awareness within the community, had the city make an offer (which the owners did not accept), and achieved National Register inclusion for our theatre.
    While there are interested parties, we continue to seek a buyer. Until the day comes, we gather helpful information such as this terrific article.
    Fortunately, we are not alone in our quest. Being in metro Los Angeles, we have the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation and the Los Angeles Conservancy to partner with us. Both have been helpful in many areas.
    Our concept for the Fox is as a multi-purpose event and entertainment venue. Inglewood has no sizeable, elegant space so residents take their events – and their money – to other cities.
    A saved and restored Fox will be an anchor on one end of our historic core street of commerce. We are getting a light rail station a mere two blocks from the Fox and the whole area is about to change forever.
    Wish us luck and Like us on FaceBook at Inglewood Fox Theatre Alliance. There are photos there of the inside of our “time capsule” of a theatre.
    If anyone has information that they’d like to share, we will gladly accept it. If we can be of assistance to anyone, do not hesitate to be in touch with me: cheeklarose@hotmail.com
    We are all in this together. Let’s go save and restore a theatre!