The Sun Theater in Grand Center has reopened after nearly 40 years of neglect and abandonment.
On Grandel Square near Powell Hall and the Fox Theatre, the Sun Theater is being leased by the Grand Center Arts Academy. The Lawrence Group, a St. Louis-based design firm, spent $11.5 million on the theater’s renovation.
Lynne Glickert, executive director of the Grand Center Arts Academy, said she was always hopeful the school would be able to use the Sun Theater for its 535 students. The school is the Beaux Arts Building, which is next to the Sun.
“Performing arts schools need a performing arts venue,” Glickert said. “(The theater) opens up a much bigger audience to see what our students can do so it’s not just family and friends.”
There are varying accounts of the Sun Theater’s history.
Opening in 1913, the theater was a playhouse for St. Louis’ German speaking population. According to the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, a city directory in 1915 showed two names in use at the same time: The Victoria Theatre and the German Theatre. The original cost was $120,000 and the seating capacity was 1,800.
The first production at the theater on March 1, 1913, was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust.” German actors performed the tragic play entirely in German.
World events would affect the Victoria/German. With the onset of World War I there was a backlash against Americans with German ancestry. The theater closed as a result but reopened after the war under new management. It was called The Liberty and later The Lyn.
A nomination form to list the theater on the National Register of Historic Places from 1978 details the building’s many uses. It was used for vaudeville and burlesque as well as a nightclub and evangelical church.
By the late 1970s, the seating capacity had been reduced to 1,000 and a distinctive neon sign identified the building as the Sun Theater.
The nomination form further details the building’s unique architecture: “The elaborately decorated, three-arched façade relies heavily on late classical motifs traditionally associated with the theatre. The intricate detail of the brickwork, carved stone and glazed terra cotta is reminiscent of the Second or ‘architectural’ style of Roman wall painting.”
By 2010, plans were underway for the Lawrence Group to renovate the Sun Theater with the assistance of historic tax credits. But the building was in bad shape.
According to Glickert, at one point, a demolition crew was contracted to tear the building down.
“Trees growing out of the roof, a wall was about to fall over and the plaster inside was probably six inches deep. It really did feel like we were in the middle of a war zone,” Glickert said.
The renovation took one year but special attention was paid to historic details.
“A lot of blood, sweat, tears and a few gray hairs went into this one,” said Aaron Bunse, the Lawrence Group’s project manager. “I was lucky to be a part of it and enjoyed sharing it with everyone.”
While the original theater had a capacity of 1,800, the renovation with the inclusion of classrooms, larger seats and more space has room for about 600 people. “That seems much more the right size for our purposes as well as for the community that’s very eager to have access to this theater,” Glickert said.
The Grand Center Arts Academy hosted the Sun Theater’s grand reopening last Saturday. It was used for school events three of the first five nights. The opening program was a nod to the building’s past. It included a pantomime of Goethe’s “Faust,” a vaudeville act and a gospel choir. The festivities, however, did not include one of the theater’s previous uses, burlesque, Glickert noted.
Glickert said more work needs to be done. The theater is not “production ready”; and because of that, she said the Academy held off on making any agreements with other organizations or theater groups. “Until the light and sound issue is resolved it’s not going to be an easy thing to make happen.”