Tennessee Theatre a Southern Belle

A dedicated preservation team puts the oomph back in an old vaudeville trouper, Knoxville's Tennessee Theatre.
August 11, 2010

Originally constructed in 1928 just as the first talkies were being released, the Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville had, by the late 1990s, seen better days. The roof leaked. The paint was deteriorating. The carpets and seats showed obvious signs of deferred maintenance.

The stage that once had hosted entertainment greats like Glenn Miller and Fanny Brice was inadequate for today's large touring productions. The theater, designed for the simpler days of vaudeville, could not meet the logistical demands of modern stage shows and orchestral performances. Equipment had to be hauled through the public entry and audience space and lifted onto the stage by hand.

But a few years ago, a dedicated Building Team resolved to turn the Tennessee into a modern performing arts center. Their creativity, drive, and teamwork have earned the project a Grand Award in BD&C's 22nd annual 2005 Reconstruction & Renovation Awards.

Ever the charming lady

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the Tennessee Theatre somehow had managed to keep much of its genteel charm. The highly textured exterior masonry work, with its decorative cornices and clay accents typical of historic Knoxville construction, would make the theater stand out in any other city. Add to that the Moorish interior, French-style chandeliers, an original Wurlitzer organ, and a distinctive oval-domed ceiling, and the 'ol gal was still a stunner.

In 1996, the owner, Dick Broadcasting, donated the property to the nonprofit Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation, which made it the home of the Knoxville Opera and Symphony Orchestra. Two years later, a feasibility study identified two options for the theater: a $14 million basic restoration, or a $20 million restoration and expansion into a regional performing arts center.

According to Paul Westlake, FAIA, principal with Cleveland-based architect Westlake Reed Leskosky, the preliminary design encompassed the entirety of the performing arts center budget, starting with the restoration work and phasing in other projects as money became available. But as the team prepared to start work in July 2003, there was doubt that the project would ever go beyond the restoration phase. "We were not at all confident," Westlake said.

One of the things that Westlake's firm is known for, however, is its keen understanding of financial incentives for historic projects. With this knowledge, the firm brought home an additional $6 million in historic and new market tax credits. Suddenly, the foundation had enough money to go the whole nine yards.

"Without those tax credits, we would not have the historically accurate drapes, the ornamental finishes, the vertical marquee blade sign, or the horizontal marquee," Westlake said. "We would not have the hydraulic stage lift which thrust the stage forward for major orchestra performances."

The added funding meant they could deliver an unprecedented degree of historical accuracy. "This was an extraordinary level of finish and design," Westlake said. "This was the first time our firm designed the soft goods, including curtains and carpeting."

With the cash influx, local contractor Denark Construction was able to shift gears dramatically. The project scope now included the construction of a new 10-story stage house extending over a public street. The stage house would make the theater more usable by modern touring productions by deepening the backstage area and providing a 9-by-22-foot freight lift.

"We had an almost $3 million project fall into our lap," Allan Cox, project executive with Denark, which served as CM-at-risk on the job. "The stage house alone consisted of a 24-by-45-foot area almost 10 stories high, using about $1 million in structural steel. We had to close one street completely and one lane of another."

According to principal Doug McCarty and project manager Scott Webb of prime architects McCarty, Holsaple McCarty of Knoxville, several caissons were required to handle the added load of the stage house, including two 60-inch behemoths that support five million pounds each.

Pains were taken to ensure that the new stage house was faithful to Knoxville's historic masonry aesthetic. Not enough old brick could not be saved—the mortar clung to it too tightly—but decorative cornices and terra cotta insets were salvaged and placed in the new brick façade.

The original reason for cantilevering the new stage house over the public roadway (which required both municipal and state permits, since it is a state highway) was to avoid demolishing adjacent buildings that were also on the historic register.

However, some adjacent structures had to be taken down to facilitate construction of the theater addition. These included the historic storefronts of a barber shop and the Arning Corner, an old insurance company building, according to McCarty.

Demolition of these structures, totaling 3,000 sf, was done slowly and meticulously, to comply with historic preservation requirements. "We had to take down 26 square feet at a time and document what we found," Webb said. "Once the theater construction was done, the storefronts were restored. In reconstructing the buildings, we reused the original wood floors and the original block, and were able to save the rare Luxor prism windows. We even were able to find replicated replacements for a few of the window prisms that were broken before work began."

One floor above the old barbershop (which is now a street-level office for the theater), the contractors inserted a structural steel penetration from the theater that houses a much-needed update: additional toilets for the balcony level.

Scheduling was aided by the early involvement of the state historic preservation officer and the National Park Service, but the Building Team ran into a problem with a wall in the barbershop. "We found that this three-foot-wide load-bearing wall did not have a footing," McCarty said. The state-approved plan called for the wall to be preserved, but McCarty said the Building Team was able to get a waiver to take it down. "It was resting right on the dirt and had utilities running right underneath it," he said.

The team also had concerns about the historic stairs from the balcony to the lobby. "They really didn't comply with code because they are not enclosed," said Webb. "But the code compliance officials gave us some variances allowing us to keep the existing handrails. We have enough additional egress capacity that these stairs can be considered a secondary means of egress from the balcony."

While the visual impact of the interior has been restored, significant aspects of the update remain hidden from view. Historic preservation requirements and the Building Team's aesthetic sensibilities demanded that new technology not intrude on the interior.

"We crawled through every inch of that building to find a way to put in the infrastructure," Denark's Cox said. "Luckily, back in '28 the contractors built in a mechanical chaseway. We were able to get the new HVAC, mechanicals, electrical, and data service in through there."

Existing ventilation features of the theater also helped deliver warm and cool air to the audience chamber. "The building kind of helped us out with that," Cox said. "We looked under the seats and there were these return air plenums in the floor. That was the best way to deliver ventilation back then, and it still is today."