Midwestern "crown jewel" theater is saved — and upgraded to accommodate Broadway-caliber productions

October 01, 2001 |

The Coronado Theatre in downtown Rockford, Ill., is a survivor of a style constructed only from the early 1920s until the stock market crash in 1929. But by the early 1980s, the deteriorating theater was endangered by lack of funds. Thanks to a detailed assessment of community needs, a public/private partnership that spearheaded generous public support and a building team's creative solutions, an expanded and renovated Coronado opened its doors in January of this year.

In the early 1980s, Mary Ann Smith, president of the Rockford Community Concert Association, called attention to the fact that the theater was ill-equipped to stage modern productions and draw new audiences. The theater's owner, Springfield, Ill.-based Kerasotes Theatre Co., could not make much-needed improvements to the building. The Coronado had been an important part of Smith's life.

"I saw the physical decline of the beloved theater to which my parents had taken me as a girl," Smith says. She also recognized the demand for more sophisticated technology and systems to support new forms of theater, and the Coronado's inability to meet it. "The Coronado was in trouble," she adds.

Years of planning followed. In 1995, the Rockford Area Arts Council commissioned Cleveland-based A/E van Dijk Pace Westlake (vPW) to conduct a comprehensive study of the Rockford area's needs for cultural arts facilities. The firm's initial assignment was to evaluate the potential of the Coronado, as well as another vintage theater, against available resources.

Exhaustive feasibility study

The feasibility study encompassed "a lot more than bricks and mortar," according to vPW principal Paul Westlake. In considering whether one or both theaters should be renovated, the firm developed pro formas for various scenarios and evaluated questions such as whether one of the theaters should be developed exclusively for use by the Rockford Symphony Orchestra. The community's capacity to support arts facilities was also considered.

At the conclusion of its study, vPW recommended that the community's efforts be focused on the Coronado, and that it be configured to accommodate the symphony. Although it would have been economically feasible to renovate both theaters, the community could not have afforded to operate both on an ongoing basis, Westlake says.

More front-end work remained. "We were involved for several years, not only with feasibility analysis, but also with strategic planning and property acquisition," Westlake observes. Because the arts council did not have control over either of the theaters evaluated or properties that would need to be acquired to implement renovation plans, the council "went silent" for a year as it began property acquisition, working with appraisers to establish the value of properties and their transfer of ownership.

Kerasotes gave the Coronado to the city in 1997, and the adjacent Jackson Piano building — which was needed to provide expansion room for a larger stage and backstage facilities — was purchased by a private foundation and resold to the city. Noting the complexity of the process, Westlake says, "We got to due diligence before schematic design."

Westlake's firm has been involved with 10 projects in the $10 million to $20 million range that have involved adaptive reuse of pre-Depression era movie theaters. He cites their similarities: The quality of the audience chamber is the reason the building still exists. The lobby is small, and stage and support space are inadequate. The infrastructure is outmoded, and the property is deficient with respect to code and accessibility requirements. The upgrading of the property typically involves both preservation and the incorporation of new space.

The primary challenge of the Coronado project was to expand its 28-ft.-deep stage house to 45 feet. The height of the grid iron above the stage was also increased from 60 feet to 80 feet. Structural integrity could be maintained during construction only by building the new stage house around the existing one. "I've never seen a more complicated construction operation in my 25 years of practice," Westlake says.

"This was an extraordinarily complex project," says vPW associate principal Paul Siemborski. "While many original features had survived, the theater's systems were inadequate for today's requirements."

Home of the Rockford Symphony

Because the Coronado is the new home of the Rockford Symphony, acoustical design considerations received high priority. Speakers were carefully located in relation to the theater's coves and ornamentation. Supplementary lighting was added, and seating profiles were modified to meet handicapped requirements. "We had to pick apart the historic audience chamber to incorporate new infrastructure," Westlake says. "Now that it's back together, people will assume it has always looked that way. But you can't imagine the number of changes that had to be made to solve the current needs of the theater, and yet to preserve the historic fabric. It took complex surgery by many trades, over many months, to pull that off."

Original plaster finishes were retained and exterior brick and cast stone were restored. The ornamental cast stone and polished granite "tiara" and parapets at the entrance were recreated to match the original, which were removed in the 1950s.

The Coronado building incorporated 18 efficiency apartments and three storefronts. Because it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the storefronts could not be removed, and this space was turned into additional lobby area. The upper floor of apartments was at approximately the level of the balcony's cross aisle. The space previously occupied by the apartments was converted into a lobby for the 750-seat balcony, which previously had no direct access to toilets and concessions. This upper lobby area incorporates the theater manager's apartment, which probably was renovated in the 1940s to include a circular bathroom.

Exterior walls preserved

The most challenging aspect of the project for the contractor was to preserve the terra-cotta façade of the Jackson Piano Building while digging beneath its foundation footings, says Robert Coleman, project manager with Janesville, Wis.-based general contractor J.P. Cullen and Sons. This was necessary to deepen the basement of the Jackson Piano Building to align it with the basement of the Coronado. Sheeting was used to shore up the Jackson building's walls, and its roof structure was temporarily tied into the back wall of original stage house until major framing could be installed. Then the original stage house's back wall was removed.

The owner originally asked that bid prices on alternate items be held for a year. Cullen considered this unreasonable for an 18-month project. It responded by specifying dates by which specific alternates must be accepted. The largest alternate, approved at the midpoint of construction, was the rework of the façade above the marquee. About 90 percent of bid alternates, with a total value of some $3 million, were added to the scope of the project without extending the construction schedule.

Requirements for the new orchestra shell could have been met for as little as $250,000 or as much as $450,000, Westlake says. In establishing the level of funding, acoustical requirements took precedence over aesthetic requirements. Funds initially available would have allowed the stage to be painted only a single color. vPW developed a model to show how the stage would appear with special finishes. As a result, a patron was persuaded to fund the additional finishes. "We had to show the vision and identify the opportunity," Westlake adds.

A movable system of acoustical panels that enclose the orchestra was made possible because of funding by another benefactor.

Getting to "excellent"

Westlake maintains that projects have "an irreducible minimum" that satisfies program and code requirements. "What's hard is to get from 'good' to 'excellent' by incorporating nonessential enhancements. The next level gets you to a project's full potential. The difference between these levels is passion."

Community support for the project was illustrated by the $18.5 million raised for it. Westlake attributes this accomplishment to a fortuitous combination of individuals — including leaders in the private sector, a mayor who supports downtown revitalization and the importance of the arts, and Mary Ann Smith.

"Many communities have private leaders, but lack public support," Westlake says. "Many have both strong public and strong private support, but they don't get together." The successful fundraising for the Coronado was the result of "a total alignment of public and private leadership," according to Westlake.

Construction Costs

General conditions $506,237
Excavation and sitework 429,900
Demolition 391,764
Concrete 654,000
Masonry 602,400
Structural steel 1,478,100
Carpentry 121,800
Waterproofing 27,300
Roofing and sheet metal 297,700
Doors and hardware 305,600
Drywall and plaster 798,800
Ceiling tile 42,300
Flooring 115,700
Painting and finishes 234,000
Specialties 52,400
Seating 274,700
Elevators 194,300
Fire protection 297,440
Mechanical/plumbing 2,535,000
Electrical 1,209,660
TOTAL $10,569,101

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