DECEMBER 17, 2012 | NEWS
By Robin Shannon, New Orleans CityBusiness
The Civic, oldest known theater building in New Orleans, has sat hidden and forgotten among a cluster of high rise towers within the Central Business District for more than 30 years. But developers are hoping that by year’s end, the 106-year-old performance venue can be put back into commerce.
A trio of partners — including developer Brian Gibbs; Bryan Bailey, who works in film production and real estate; and Solomon Group, an entertainment management company — is working to restore the 15,000-square-foot building so that it host to live theatrical and music performances, movies, corporate functions and receptions.
A meticulous nine-month, $10.5 million renovation project is now in the home stretch. Gibbs Construction is the general contractor for the project.
“We are definitely looking to fill a void in the city’s live entertainment scene,” said Stephen Fink, a partner with The Solomon Group. “Seating can fluctuate between 750 and 1,100, giving us the opportunity to accommodate shows that are too small for a Saenger or Mahalia Jackson theater, which hold more than 2,000 people, or too big for something that would have been at Le Petit or Le Chat Noir.”
In addition, Fink said the renovated Civic will also feature an adaptable modular flooring system that will allow for transformation from theater-style seating to a modern concert format or corporate conference setting in only a matter of minutes.
“The theater isn’t big enough to live off a traveling show, and it also is not situated near the other known theaters so we had to be creative with our business plan,” Fink said. “This allows us to be flexible. We will have the ability to hold a corporate event by day and a concert at night.”
Gibbs, who has owned the property since 2001 along with the loft apartments that flank both sides, said the project got a huge boost from multiple state and federal tax credits. The most crucial among them was the state’s Live Infrastructure Tax Credit, meant to help re-establish performance venues. The program provides 25 percent of the cost of the project in fully refundable tax credits, he said.
“When I bought the property in 2001, the value of the theatre was at zero,” Gibbs said. “I didn’t know what to do with it or how to go about doing something with it. The tax credits made it feasible because now we had a goal.”
Although the building’s structure was solid and completely fireproof, renovation came with its share of challenges, Gibbs said. The building needed a brand new roof and ventilation system, and the basement had to be drained of about 4 feet of water. The stage was rotten in some areas, and the balconies needed to be rebuilt with larger seating.
Gibbs said much of the plasterwork on the balcony façades was intact and just needed some minor restoration. Construction crews also had to work to expand restroom space, sacrificing seating on the bottom level.
Additional seating was eliminated for the installation of bars on each theater level. Fink said the partners are working with Neil Bodenheimer of the cocktail lounge Cure to develop the menu and service plan.
“We are looking at something simple, but we want to ensure that it is pleasing to the crowds we are catering to,” Fink said.
Another challenge came with designing the entrance. Architect Jack Sawyer with Eskew+Dumez+Ripple said in past incarnations, the main theatre entrance was on Baronne Street, where patrons would pass through an open-air arcade into the lobby. The old Civic marquee still remains, but the traditional entrance is no longer viable because of the condominiums that now occupy the buildings on either side. Theatergoers will now enter from the side through an alley off O’Keefe Street, where a new marquee was recently installed.
Although renovations are nearly complete, the owners have intentionally shied away from booking the theatre for events until it is ready to host them.
“People are tired of hearing about what people are going to do, and we did not want to be that way,” Fink said. “We wanted to come out and be real. We wanted to have the space ready and know it is ready before laying out a schedule of events.”