Peabody Opera House returns to original grandeur | St. Louis Public Radio

Peabody Opera House returns to original grandeur

Sep 4, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2011 - When Paul Joseph McKee III first walked through the long-shuttered Kiel Opera House several years ago, his initial reaction was disbelief.

"I couldn't believe the place was closed," said McKee, president and CEO at Paric Corp., "and I was amazed at the good shape it was in. But it needed some work."

In fact, it took about three years of pre-construction planning and putting together $78.8 million in public and private money, plus a small army of about 1,200 artisans and other workers to make what's now called the Peabody Opera House grand again for its Oct. 1 reopening.

Since July of last year, plaster restorers, gold leaf and historical paint specialists from Chicago, antique lighting and sound experts and other workers and craftsmen have been all over the three-level, 77-year-old, mostly Art Deco gem. Working with Paric, the general contractor, and Mike McCarthy, CEO of the Opera House, they've been repairing and in some cases duplicating missing features, painting, polishing, even recycling parts of the ductwork for the old belt-driven air ventilation system for quieter and more modern air conditioning.

The main theater at Peabody Opera House awaits its first performance in 20 years.
Credit Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon archives

If you're among the thousands already planning to attend upcoming concerts or shows in the domed 3,100-seat main theater, or perhaps a corporate meeting, holiday party or wedding reception in one of the original "assembly rooms" that flank the main theater, here's what to look for.

Keep in mind that most of those polished, now-gleaming architectural features you'll see - marble columns and walls in the grand lobby, for example, the stone and terrazzo floors, wood paneling in the side rooms, and those usually metal and glass light fixtures throughout - are original. It just took expert repair work, cleaning and polishing and for the light fixtures, rewiring and in some cases duplication of missing or broken pieces, to make things dazzling again.

So dazzling that on our recent tour, Peabody general manager Marty Brooks pointed out the shining marble stairs on one of the two grand curved staircases between the ticket lobby and grand lobby above.

"Those steps look wet," he said, not to mention slippery. "But they're not wet - just cleaned, highly polished and buffed."

And as you go from one area to the next, don't forget to look up, particularly in the grand lobby, the main theater, even in the side rooms. You'll not want to miss the restored coffered ceilings with recessed lighting working again, the ornate plasterwork and other restored features above you.

But also be careful, says Brooks, general manager for both the Peabody and Scottrade Center next door. He doesn't want you to block others or cause someone to walk into you.

Keith Wolkoff, Paric's project executive for the renovation, says that all but about 20 or maybe 30 light fixtures in public spaces and corridors are original.

Some broken glass panels, particularly in the rows of overhead lights in the ticket lobby, were replicated. And replacement fixtures had to be used in some cases.

"But we were fortunate in that, when they tore down Kiel Auditorium," he said, "they salvaged some of the fixtures and we put pieces of some of those together" for use in the Opera House. Mostly, he said, replacements are in corridors and in one of the assembly rooms redone as the Peabody Lounge for VIP ticket holders.

Kiel Auditorium and the adjoining Opera House were built between 1932 and 1934, originally as the city's Municipal Auditorium and Community Center Building. The auditorium was demolished starting in 1992 and replaced with what's now Scottrade Center, which opened in 1994. The Opera House was closed in 1991, exactly 20 years ago.

Since 2006, SCP Worldwide, a sports, media and entertainment investment group in New York City, has been overseeing things. That's when SCP bought the Blues Hockey club and obtained leases for both city-owned Scottrade and the Peabody, renamed last year after Peabody Energy bought naming rights.

Columns around the outside of the opera house. You will be able to walk out onto this front balcony.
Credit Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon archives

SCP also has been working with its affiliate, Running Subway, using its connections in the entertainment industry, and has hired Broadway Across America to bring entertainment back on stage at the Opera House. (You can check out what's coming so far at www.peabodyoperahouse.com.)

But John Urban, SCP's executive vice president for events and new business, says much more is in the works.

"We'll be announcing several more concerts, our Spring Broadway titles and additional holiday programming in the weeks ahead," he said.

He said to expect, as well, some productions later on involving major St. Louis performing arts groups.

"We've met with quite a few including the St Louis Symphony, Dance St. Louis, Opera Theatre, Shakespeare Festival, St. Louis Actors Studio," he said, and "already have some tentative plans and dates on hold."

Michael Uthoff, artistic and executive director at Dance St. Louis, confirmed that "we are talking with them now," in part about special Nutcracker productions at the Opera House for the 2012 and 2013 holiday seasons. Uthoff said Dance St. Louis will continue programming at the Fox Theatre and Touhill Performing Arts Center, but would expand by doing "special things" at the Opera House.

Taking a tour

Getting the Opera House ready for all that has been a production in and of itself. Based on our tour and on interviews, we'll guide you through.

To set the stage: Designed by LaBeaume & Klein, the building is a Moderne-influenced version of classical Revival style outside; mostly Art Deco, popular in the 1920s and 1930s, inside.

As you approach the main entrance on Market Street, don't think you're seeing double if you notice four large sculpted bears outside. Only two limestone bears had guarded the entrance since it opened.

Two new bears, sculpted by St. Louis artists Jeff Metz and Chris Cassimatis, will be part of a new VIP entrance on 14th Street.

As you enter the building, you'll pass through an arched hallway-like space parallel with Market, then into the ticket lobby with its restored terrazzo floor, the distinctive overhead lighting and other special features. You might notice that one of the marble sills for the three original ticket windows has been lowered. That's an update to make things easier for people with disabilities.

Take either of the two grand staircases with ornate metal railings to get to one of the most impressive spaces there - the two-story-tall grand lobby for the main theater. You'll be surrounded by gleaming marble on the walls and columns, balconies overlooking the original stone floor, and above you, the splendid coffered ceiling with recessed lighting, restored cylinder glass and metal light fixtures and other special features.

Wolkoff said that "maybe 5 percent" of the original ornate plasterwork in the grand lobby was redone by special craftsmen. They worked throughout the building making molds of designs in existing plasterwork that they used to replicate missing or damaged pieces.

The Peabody features a two-story main lobby.
Credit Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon archives

You'll also notice gold paint and sometimes gold leaf on balcony railings, on the column capitals, and in highlights. That's not ordinary gold paint.

"They used a special kind of paint that would tone down the brightness," Wolkoff said. "We didn't want it to look brand new."

But one new feature has been added. Stone sills at the base of two of the seven sets of large doors facing Market, above the main entrance, have been removed to make walking through the doors easier. Outside you'll find stone pavers over the old roof, high top tables for drinks, and views of what will be an attractive park across the street - with a small skating rink this winter.

"We're working with the city and the Gateway Foundation to landscape and light the park," Brooks said, "and we're moving forward to put in a small temporary ice skating rink." Expect to see it there from November through mid January.

The main theater's proscenium, in gold leaf.

As you move into the main theater, directly ahead will be the 49-foot tall stage proscenium completely and painstakingly redone in gold leaf.

McKee said 90-foot-tall scaffolding was up inside the theater for two to three months while workers cleaned and repaired ornate plasterwork, replastered the dome, redid its original lighting, added Leed lighting with colors, and dealt with other out-of-reach restoration work.

The seating is all new - wider and more comfortable than before. "As our country has aged," Brooks said. "Americans have widened."

The original 10-inch thick electrically-driven steel curtain, said to be both sound-proof and fireproof, is still up there behind the stage proscenium.

But a more modern, sound-engineered wall has been built behind the stage to block sound when events are in progress at both Scottrade and the Opera House.

"Largely its density works to block sound," Wolkoff said. "The sound engineers have done a thorough check. It works -- better than the old system."

Another addition for the theater: A bigger and better loading dock on the 15th Street side. Now four tractor trailers, rather than only one or two, can use the dock at the same time. And two new large freight elevators replace one small elevator and a ramp for pushing equipment up to the stage level.

You'll also want to check out a new version of the old Kiel Club on the lower level, in what was originally exhibition space. You'll find drinks, food, and some of the new restrooms.

Also on that level is a new kitchen for Levy Restaurants' catering and food service. A restaurant might come later.

The old assembly rooms - two on each side of the theater - still have separate entrances, original terrazzo floors, wood paneling and elaborate, coffered plaster ceilings. To contain sound when they're rented for parties, meetings or other gatherings, workers put seven layers of acoustic foam beneath new fabric on the upper part of the walls, above the restored wood.

Originally all four rooms had wood stages. Two were removed as part of the renovation. One room still has part of its stage that can be used as a kind of podium. Another, now the Encore Room, has a full stage and can be rented for social functions, or by small community performing arts groups for theatrical productions, musical performances and the like. Urban said the capacity for each room is about 250 for a sit-down dinner, and "in the range of 350" for receptions and similar gatherings.

McKee said that one of the biggest overall renovation challenges was updating and modernizing things without harming original features and the building's historic character.

"If we did too much, it would look brand spanking new," he said, "and we didn't want it to be brand spanking new."

Martinez & Johnson in Washington, D.C., an architectural firm that specializes in historic preservation, helped guide the way with its overall renovation plan. The Lawrence Group in St. Louis helped with the interior decor, furniture, fixtures and the like.

But Paric and its workers did the nitty gritty, even crawling into ductwork and other obscure places to figure out how to install and hide air conditioning and other mechanical systems. Take the sprinklers, for example. McKee says they are there. But he issued a challenge for when you visit.

"I defy you," he said, "to go find the sprinklers."

Charlene Prost is a freelance writer who has covered historic preservation..