Major renovations slowly return Saenger Theatre in New Orleans to its roots

October 2, 2014

Bruce Nolan, The Times-Picayune

The seats have been ripped out, and the sloped, bare concrete floor of the Saenger Theatre is a forest of construction scaffolding. The famous classical statues are still in their niches along the walls, but swaddled out of sight in protective bubble wrap. Near the ceiling a lone workman painstakingly strips ornate plaster molding by hand.

The old theater has been consumed in a massive reconstruction project: Scaffolds stand everywhere. So do temporary lights and power tools. Outside, behind the building, a crane is driving sheet piling into the middle of what was Iberville Street, where the back wall of the newly elongated Saenger will stand.

This is what the middle of a $51 million restoration project looks like.

“It’s very much the intention of the design that the theater and the entrance arcade be what they were in 1927,” said Gary Martinez, an expert in historic theater restoration with Martinez+Johnson Architecture of Washington, D.C.

“When we’re looking for information about the theater, or looking to make changes, our first question is what did it look like in 1927?

“We want to keep it close.”

“It’s like an onion. We’re peeling it back to its original beauty,” said Cindy Connick, executive director of the Canal Street Development Corp., the city agency overseeing the renovation.

A few months ago, the restorers found a bonus: the theater’s original blueprints, shoved away in an obscure closet and rediscovered only as the theater was being emptied of everything.

Martinez said the architects already had a trove of information on the building: Laser mapping had recorded its every dimension, and there were a few old drawings, supplemented by old photos.

But the original drawings supplied details that would have been lost. For instance, the restoration will tear out an escalator that had been added; “the drawings give us the details of the materials that were there before,” Martinez said.

When the Saenger reopens, possibly next June, it will look very much like it looked on opening day in February 1927 — with the original color scheme, for instance — but larger and better suited to the demands of modern entertainment companies, Martinez and others said Thursday.

Although it was built to house live events, the Saenger’s backstage area became undersized over time — too small for many complex megaproductions, like The Lion King," said Martinez.

So now the theater’s rear wall is being pushed back, creating a new, larger stage house to accommodate modern touring companies.

In addition, the 2,700-seat theater has acquired one of its flanking properties, at 1101 Canal, and will use that space for additional amenities.

For most of its life, the Saenger stood as the most opulent theater in New Orleans. But it has not had a commercial pulse since the summer of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina flooded it.

Since then, resuscitation attempts have started, stopped and started again.

Now recovery and restoration is well under way, said Kirk Feldmann, chief operating officer of ACE Theatrical Group Inc. That company, based in Houston, is the Saenger’s former owner. Now it will manage the theater.

The building is now owned by the city, through the Canal Street Development Corp. ACE’s local subsidiary, Arts Center Enterprises, New Orleans — the same company that manages the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts — has a 52-year management contract at the Saenger, said Feldmann and Connick.

The $51 million job is financed by a mix of private capital and federal and state tax credits made possible, in part, because of the Saenger’s value as a rare, surviving example of opulent theaters that cropped up in the first three decades of the 20th century. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

Then a 4,000-capacity playhouse, the Saenger opened in 1927 as the flagship in the Saenger family’s chain of 237 theaters across the Southeast, Martinez said.

Built for $2 million — or $26 million in 2012 dollars — its debut was heralded by a parade down Canal Street and a 20-page special news and advertising section in The Times-Picayune. Its interior evoked the courtyard of a Renaissance Florentine palace; stars twinkled in the blackness overhead, and dim projections of clouds floated by in the night sky. Both will return in the restoration, Martinez said.

It also featured a spectacular organ — The Wonder Organ — that still survives, damaged and in storage, Connick said. A separate fundraising drive will have to finance its restoration and return, she said.

In the 1970s, the Saenger and other downtown theaters fell on hard times with market changes that produced suburban cineplexes.

The Saenger adapted with varying degrees of success. When it went dark in 2005 it was no longer a movie house, but a venue for live entertainment and some touring Broadway shows.

Feldmann and Martinez said it will return as a theater capable of handling touring Broadway shows, concerts of all kinds and business events.

“We really set it up to be a multiuse house,” Martinez said. “It’ll have a lot of different capabilities.”

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