Historic Tennessee Theatre - Est. 1928 Knoxville, Tennessee


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History Reborn

by Amy McRary, Knoxville News Sentinel - January 9, 2005

Even when the Tennessee Theatre was faded, sooty, leaky and shabby, Tim Burns saw the once-grand movie palace inspire. Now the theater's technical director can't wait for the restored, updated Tennessee to open Friday, Jan. 14.

"I could always spot a first-timer," said Burns, who's worked at the theater since 1979. "Their mouths drop open and their eyes look upwards."

The 1928 building not only has been returned to its original grandeur, but is enhanced with an expanded stage and orchestra pit, modern acoustics and technology, more restrooms for visitors and dressing rooms for performers.

Meaning anyone walking through the doors will be a first-timer.

"I can't wait. I'll be at the front door. I expect total amazement," Burns said.

The $23.5 million, nearly 1 1/2-year renovation and expansion designed by Knoxville architects McCarty Holsaple McCarty in association with Cleveland, Ohio, historic architectural consultants Westlake Reed Leskosky combines past opulence with current technology. The work retained the movie palace's historic integrity and Spanish-Moorish design, while transforming it into a modern performing arts center.

Visitors to the 1,631-seat 604 S. Gay St. theater will see what once was, what should have been or was only briefly and what wasn't possible 76 years ago.

Architect Doug McCarty calls the theater "one of the most precious buildings East Tennessee has" and said the project was more than restoration.

"Knoxville and Knox County and East Tennessee really needed a state-of-the-art performing arts center. It would have cost two to three times more to build a new building from scratch, and there's no way it could have the character of our existing theater," said McCarty.


Gone are the coal soot, dirt and roof leaks that dimmed and damaged. The theater colors and patterns are bright, bold and clean. Nothing is patched; every painted surface was cleaned, repaired if necessary and repainted in authentic colors. Evergreene Painting Studios of New York scraped a minimum of six layers to find the original colors.

The auditorium's repaired domed ceiling is a mouth-dropping shade of brilliant blue. Only the shape of now gleaming blue and silver urns flanking the auditorium stage recalls their past. Grand Lobby rough-textured plaster walls are stenciled in a red and gold pattern; reds and golds repeat on some auditorium walls.

Colors have a lasting quality past ones didn't. Bronze powder in the 1928 gold base oxidized and faded "the day after (painters) left," half-joked Burns. The tones dulled in five to seven years; for most of its life the theater never shone like original Chicago architects Graven and Mayger planned.

The original carpet and ornate drapes with swags and rigid painted valances are recreated Replicating original fabric colors was tougher than finding paint tones. Fabric colors are what former McCarty Holsaple McCarty interior designer Lori Wilson called "educated judgments."

Photos the late Jim Thompson took two weeks after the theater's Oct. 1, 1928, opening and information from Tennessee supporter Wallace Baumann of Knoxville were two resources used by McCarty Holsaple McCarty and Westlake Reed Leskosky interior designers. Thompson's black-and-white photos show color depths and patterns but no actual colors.

Designers found a company with the theater's original carpet pattern but not its colors. Deep green and red were debated for the carpet background. Some 50 paper "strike offs" or color variations were made and 10 2-by-2-foot samples woven before red was picked, said Wilson, now an interior designer for the University of Tennessee's facility planning division.


The Tennessee marquee replicates its original look - with a 1956 twist and new LED lights. Back is the 1928 style, but the marquee retains the trapezoid shape created when the original rectangular was modified in '56.

The 56-foot tall sign reading "Tennessee" on the theater's Burwell Building has high visibility. "You can see it from anywhere on Gay Street," said Allan Cox, project executive for construction manager Denark Construction. The sign with LED lights replicates the original that was removed in 1956 and then "run through the shredder," said Burns.

Inside, five crystal Grand Lobby chandeliers - each valued at $250,000 - and other historic lights are back after being restored by St. Louis (Mo) Antique Lighting Company. The theater also is brighter because of small recessed lights put in the middle of some existing ceiling medallions.

A lighting system around the dome and other areas of the auditorium allows changes in light colors and the theater mood. The system can be operated manually or set to change over times ranging from 60 seconds to 60 minutes, said Becky Hancock, the theater's general manager.

The most unique lights may be replicas of wall sconces removed in 1929 or 1930. Two pairs of the 7-foot, white-globed lights designed like cotton plants hung briefly on auditorium walls. Now two reproductions, totaling $7,800 and created by St. Louis Antique Lighting Company, grace opposite walls. Supports for theatrical lights eliminated the need for a second pair.

The original sconces were taken down 12 to 18 months after the Tennessee opened so sound tiles of the time could be installed. The tiles were needed because the theater was designed in the silent film era but opened just as "talkies" were taking over. The tiles likely hadn't worked in four decades. By the '60s, they had been painted over several times, said Hancock.


A concessions stand was added to the ground floor lobby; the Grand Lobby has a new, expanded concessions counter. Both have full bars. New restrooms are at the balcony level; existing facilities on the floor below the Grand Lobby are expanded and updated.

The theater bought an adjacent Clinch Avenue retail strip for the expansion; the balcony restrooms, with five toilets for women, two toilets and two urinals for men, are on a third floor built above what was once a barbershop. A handicapped restroom off aisle one in the auditorium was renovated.

The men's existing lower-level restroom with four toilet stalls was reconfigured and eight 1928 urinals re-enameled and three more urinals added. The women's lower-level restroom has 15 stalls instead of the previous nine. Renovating those facilities cut out some 1928 ambience for 21st-century needs.

A red oak-paneled men's smoking room became the lowel-level public elevator exit. Changes in the women's restrooms eliminated its lounge. "We traded couches for thrones," quipped Burns.


Burgundy velvet auditorium seats reproduce the originals' style and also meet American Disability Act standards. Sixteen ambulatory seats include ends that swing out for better accessibility. Panels on aisle seats replicate original ones in a Spanish-Moorish design. The originals were removed in 1966, but six decorated ends found in the boiler room were used as patterns.

The balcony was redone to restore sight lines destroyed in a 1966 seat redesign. Places in the eight-row balcony now are "some of the best seats in the house," said McCarty.


The old stage house was demolished; everything behind the decorated proscenium arch is new. The new stage house is a 10-story addition that cantilevers some 20 feet over and 20 feet above State Street.

"The stage and its support spaces, that's the economic engine," Hancock said. "If we didn't have the facility to attract performers, we'd have nothing more than a beautiful museum."

The 45-foot deep stage is almost double its predecessor. An expanded orchestra pit holds "55 happy musicians" instead of "35 unhappy musicians," said Burns. Its curved wooden wall has recessed speakers to provide sound for the first rows of orchestra level seats.

The entire pit rises on a mechanized lift and provides extra seating if not used by performers. Previously only the theater's Wurlitzer organ rose on a small lift. The organ now has an under-stage storage closet accessed from the orchestra pit and can be rolled to different places on the lift.

State-of-the-art rigging, lighting, sound and acoustics were added to draw talent and enhance programs. A custom-designed orchestra shell with nine towers, each weighing 5,700 pounds, rolls on air-assisted castors. Its three permanently rigged ceiling panels move vertically and tilt. Acoustic plaster replaces the '30s sound tiles on the green auditorium walls.

It's not just what the audience sees that enhances its experience. The theater grew from 39,000 to 61,000 square feet, said Hancock. The vast majority of the expansion is backstage and includes a green room, new storage, dressing and auxiliary space.

Ten dressing rooms with private restrooms range from star space for one or two performers to chorus rooms that each accommodates at least 12. Three more backstage rooms can be dressing rooms, auxiliary space or can be used by touring production companies.

The new Tennessee "is a heck of a bargain," said Burns. "This building is a restored Knoxville landmark. It is an example of the golden age of movie palaces. It's a theater many cities would give anything that they still had. This is a bargain because we have a performing arts facility you couldn't build for less than $50 million and it has, in my personal opinion, historic and aesthetic value.

"This is not a Knoxville thing; this is not a regional thing. It's a national thing and it doesn't happen everywhere."