Theatre Cedar Rapids returns to bigger, better space downtown

Diana Nollen
Published: February 21 2010 | 5:01 am - Updated: 30 March 2014 | 7:45 pm in
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Slideshow produced by Liz Martin

CEDAR RAPIDS — Theatre Cedar Rapids is ready to pay it forward.

The first gem in the Corridor’s performing-arts crown jewels will reopen Friday with a sold-out gala celebration 20 months after floodwaters filled the Iowa Theatre Building’s basement and covered the TCR stage and the first seven rows of seats.

Plans to reopen the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids and to relocate Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City are in the works, but still several years away.

A $7.8 million building project has restored and renovated the Iowa Theatre in ways Theatre Cedar Rapids staff and volunteers had only dreamed of, building on the Next Act capital campaign launched shortly before the floodwaters hit.

“The first time I saw the lobby almost done, I actually got tears, because it was so amazing,” said TCR administrative assistant Joan Sammons, 77, of Cedar Rapids. She has been with the community theater “31, going on 32 years,” since its days in the old Strand Theatre on Third Street and 12th Avenue SE and through the 1983 move to the Iowa Theatre Building, 102 Third St. SE.

“I just cannot believe that all the things we’ve wished for over the years have happened — office space upstairs, having the box office connected to the theater, more space for storage everywhere, better facilities for the volunteers downstairs, an automatic marquee. Those things are just awesome. ...

“It feels like Christmas every day, because it’s all brand-new,” she said.

Managing Director Casey Prince, 32, of Cedar Rapids, hopes the theater’s reopening will spark continued renovation downtown.

“We never think of the arts from the economic side of things,” Prince said. “When you just think about who’s downtown in the evenings and how many performance nights we have a year, suddenly you have 300 to 500 people coming downtown on a lot of dates and hopefully doing dinner before the show or drinks after or something else.”

He’s hoping for a domino effect on other downtown businesses.

“Nobody ever calls the arts an economic catalyst,’’ Prince said. “... From the theater’s perspective, we love that we’re going to be back downtown and hope to pay it forward for as many other organizations as we can.”

Changes

Reclaiming the 1928 building from the floodwaters is “a huge statement for Theatre Cedar Rapids, but also for Cedar Rapids,” said TCR board President Tim Boyle, 54, of Cedar Rapids.

“People will see that when they see this is not simply a restoration, it’s a rejuvenation. It’s bigger, better and even more dramatically appealing than ever before.”

Boyle has been involved with the theater for more than 30 years and has a featured role in “The Producers,” playing from Friday through March 14 on the main stage. He said his reaction to the renovations is “pretty hard to describe, particularly if you know what it was like before the flood. We had pretty cramped quarters downstairs and backstage. The dressing rooms were like being in a German U-boat movie. Now it’s just remarkable.”

The changes will be apparent when people drive by the theater on First Avenue SE, where they’ll see an upscale lounge that spans nearly the length of the building. Food will be prepared on-site by Zins, which has a restaurant a block away at 227 Second Ave. SE. On the Third Street SE side, passers-by will see the relocated Fed Hedges Library on the first floor and the new dance studio on the second floor, where “The Producers” cast has been rehearsing since Feb. 8.

“It’s a great milestone for community recovery,” said Cedar Rapids Downtown District President Doug Neumann, 40, of Cedar Rapids. “The crowds Theatre Cedar Rapids brings help downtown businesses and add tremendous vibrancy on show nights.”

Walk into the first-floor lobby, and everything looks new — and in some ways the same as it did in 1928. The paint scheme of gray-green walls with accents of muted gold, maroon and cream is based on paint chips uncovered in the renovation process.

The stage floor is new, the seats are reupholstered and wider on the main floor, and two chandeliers original to the building have been restored and hung by the opera boxes on either side of the stage.

Huge changes are in store for the volunteers who hang out in the basement greenroom and dressing rooms, as well as the new dance and music rehearsal spaces on the second floor or the new black-box 100-seat studio theater on the lower level, carved out of space previously occupied by Superior Press and other tenants.

Built as a vaudeville stage and movie house, “(Theatre Cedar Rapids) is such an important historic treasure and cultural asset that we all collectively share,” said local historian Mark Stoffer Hunter, 44, of Cedar Rapids. “It’s historic in that not a lot of these theaters survived the way this one did, and it continues its ride as a theater. It’s lavishly opulent in its architectural design, from the grand era of movie palaces. Its comeback after a flood makes it even more historically important.”

Renovation

“The biggest item we wanted to keep our eye on was the preservation of the historic character of the building,” said architect Brad Fritz, 29, with OPN Architects in Cedar Rapids.

He’s also a member of the theater’s board, chairman of the volunteer board and a cast member of “The Producers.”

He said the state Historical Office approved the plans before construction. “(The building) is considered eligible to be on the list of historical places, and we did not want to jeopardize that if the theater decided they ever wanted to go ahead with the registration,” he said.

Ryan Cos., which has an office in Cedar Rapids, served as the project contractor. Subcontractors included Modern Piping, Paulson Electric and Sound Concepts, all of Cedar Rapids.

“As far as the scope of the budget, it’s a small- to medium-sized project for us,” Fritz said. “As far as its importance to the community and our own sense of pride, it’s one of our more important projects.”

Helping wade through a mountain of paperwork for FEMA funding was Pat Deignan, 47, of Cedar Rapids, executive vice president at Bankers Trust in Cedar Rapids, vice president of the TCR trustees and a past president of the board.

“It’s very fortunate we had teamed with real professionals at OPN and Ryan Companies,” Deignan said. “Without the professional expertise of architects and engineers, we never could have talked the talk to FEMA. A little non-profit with volunteers would have been overwhelmed, but the professionals did the heavy lifting.”

He said they never questioned coming back to the Iowa Theatre Building.

“It was only a question of when we would do it and how we would pay for it. ... Half the fun about going to the theater is going into that building,” he said.

Historical photos - produced by Liz Martin

What’s new

Some of the changes greeting audiences and volunteers at Theatre Cedar Rapids in the Iowa Theatre Building, 102 Third St. SE:

Overall look - Original 1928 architectural details, including decorative moldings on the walls and ceiling, uncovered and restored wherever possible. New paint scheme throughout, based on paint chips uncovered during restoration work. Walls look either gray or green, depending on the light. Accent colors include muted gold, maroon and creamy white.

Vestibule - Box office expanded and relocated to TCR’s renovated outer lobby.

First floor - New first-floor Linge Lounge spanning nearly the entire First Avenue side of the theater, with food, bar and beverages by Zins available before and after shows and during intermission. Expanded concessions area, also operated by Zins. Fed Hedges Library now fronts Third Street SE.

Restrooms - Additional restrooms on the first floor and lower level; rejuvenated restrooms in the second-floor lobby.

Auditorium - Reconfigured main-floor theater seating, using original seats set with wider widths, new backs and new upholstery; new aisle handrails and improved aisle lighting; additional row of seats, bringing total to 550, including six wheelchair locations; original chandeliers restored and mounted by the opera boxes; new stage floor with 8-by-28-foot trap door system centerstage; new fly line ropes to replace those damaged by floodwaters; new spiral staircase from right side of stage to basement; 163 new lighting instruments to replace those damaged in the flood.

Second floor - New dance and music rehearsal rooms, fronting Third Street SE; staff offices relocated to second floor, with a door opening to the theater’s second-floor lobby; additional meeting rooms.

Basement - New 100-seat Grandon Studio Theatre; relocated and renovated costume construction and storage room, laundry room, greenroom, makeup room, dressing rooms and showers; elevator access from basement to upper floors via Iowa Theatre Building entrance.

Flood mitigation - Mechanical and electrical components relocated from sub-basement to other levels, including the roof; concrete block walls in basement with minimal finishes, no more plaster or terra-cotta bricks; certified valves can shut off plumbing, important since the first floodwater came in through the plumbing; flood insurance.

Funding - $7.8 million building project; $3.3 million from FEMA to take the building back to preflood conditions and meet current codes; $1.5 million Vision Iowa Community Attraction and Tourism grant; $1.575 million from Hall-Perrine Foundation; $1.9 million in Next Act capital campaign pledges for building improvements and a theater endowment, seeded through the late Audrey Linge-Ovel estate and her family.

Sources: Casey Prince, TCR managing director; OPN Architects; Rob Merritt, TCR community relations director

Photos by Liz Martin

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