Reflection: Banishing the ghosts and decay from the Sun Theater
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2013: Jazz music. Champagne towers. Women in sequins, men in black tie. This was as bacchanalian as my 9-year-old brain got when it tried to imagine just what was going on behind the Sun’s glorious sign the first time I recall driving past it. My face pressed against the backseat passenger window, I pumped my parents for details, but there weren’t many to be had, aside from the fact that, among other things, it had been a theater, a cinema and a night club.
It didn’t matter that trees were growing through the roof, causing it to eventually cave in and making the once-grand theater susceptible to the elements: That splendid sign gave the illusion of life to an otherwise decaying structure and the feeling that it was, against all odds, enthusiastically open for business.
But for whom?
Last month I was taken on a tour of the Sun, which is undergoing an $11 million renovation/restoration by the Lawrence Group. Upon entering the building I realized the only patrons the Sun would have seen in many years were vagrants. Extensive cleanup work had already begun and the seats had been torn out, but there was a decidedly eerie feeling to the yawning void that had once housed and entertained so many people.
Lead Designer/Project Manager Aaron Bunse seconded this feeling, saying that it was much worse when the seats were still there -- 1500 of them, empty and staring at a dark, crumbling stage. When I asked him why the sign had continued to be turned on all of these years, he said Grand Center paid the bill to make the area more attractive for Fox and Powell patrons.
Not all has gone as predicted -- but when does renovation ever go exactly as planned? Thieves stole 100-pound terra cotta theater masks that were scheduled to be given to City Museum.
Bunse is also a photographer and his amazing pre-clean-up images of the Sun show the damaging effects of exposure and water to the once-majestic plasterwork. One of his favorite elements of this job is the plaster restoration, achieved through rubber molds made of the surviving work and carried out by craftsmen at Woemmel Plastering Co. The artisans there use virtually the same techniques as the original craftsmen did in their work on the Sun in its original form: the Victoria Theater.
The Victoria opened in March 1913 as a German language theater. But World War I and ensuing anti-German sentiment spelled doom; and it closed in 1917. After the War, it re-opened as a movie house called The Liberty. Since then, the building has been a nightclub, burlesque house and even a church meeting place.
Finally, after having been reborn perhaps too many times without the passion, vision or money that originally built it, the structure was left to begin its slow, creeping implosion.
One hundred years after it opened, the building is finally getting the loving care it deserves from the Lawrence Group, as it strives to reconstruct as much of the original beauty as possible while turning it into a fully modern performance venue, with the Grand Center Arts Academy as its main tenant.
As Bunse described plans for the balcony to be converted into classrooms with tiered seating and room for performance space, I thought about the tiny high school stage whose boards I had so fervently trod. I began to wish I was 15 again so that I could attend a school with such an amazing building at its disposal.