Kiel Opera House renamed "Peabody Opera House"
By Adam Allington, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis, MO – In the fall of 2011 the long-shuttered Kiel Opera House will reopen as the Peabody Opera House. The naming rights were purchased by St. Louis-based coal company Peabody Energy.
The deal between Peabody and a consortium of investors is the final piece of the financing puzzle to breathe new life into one of St. Louis' most venerable public buildings. When the Kiel Opera House closed its doors in 1991, few thought it would remain shuttered for nearly two decades.
Over the years the venue brought countless acts to downtown St. Louis. It hosted comedians such as Johnny Carson and Bill Cosby, singers including Frank Sinatra, as well as the biggest names in rock, including Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.
About two weeks ago, SCP Worldwide, the majority owner of the St. Louis Blues and the Kiel's leaseholder, announced that $78 million in financing was secured to begin construction to reopen the venue. On Monday, Greg Boyce, the CEO of Peabody Energy, joined SCP Chairman Dave Checketts to announce that when the opera house reopens next year, it will no longer bear the name of Henry Kiel, who was mayor of St. Louis from 1913 to 1925.
Checketts said that when his company acquired the Blues in 2006, the team was only drawing a meager 4,500 seats at home games, and the Kiel's reopening was a long-shot.
"There were a number of nights when I'd pull out of ScottTrade Center and turn right on Market Street and sit at the light in front of this building, without a single light on, dark and dingy and depressing," said Checketts. "And I would sit at that light and think What did we do?'"
Checketts forecasted that the new Peabody Opera House will host as many as 264 events in 2012, and 292 by 2014. Additionally, he said building will require a complete rehab that will employ some 500 construction workers.
"It's a complete reconstruction in many ways, new lighting, sound, carpet, the seats fully restored, the bathrooms, plumbing, heating," said Checketts. "It's enormous."
As far as how much Peabody had to come up with to hang their name on the building, Checketts kept his cards close.
"They're significant, but we're not going to talk about that," said Checketts. "It's a major investment by Peabody and it kind of completes the needed financing."
When the opera house opened in 1934, it was originally called the Municipal Opera House. It was later renamed in honor of Mayor Kiel.
Architectural Historian Michael Allen said the $87 million bond package that paid for the Kiel and other downtown amenities remains the largest single investment in infrastructure in the city's history.
"It's responsible for a lot of the current appearance of St. Louis: roads, bridges, public buildings, sewers. Everything from the River Des Peres to the Civil Courts and the Kiel Auditorium downtown came out of that money," said Allen. "And it's the last time St. Louis has spent that much money all at once on improvement."
Allen said in the 1930s, building great cities was a national obsession. But today just renovating these buildings requires private investment. Allen admitted that's necessary even if it means removing Henry Kiel's name from the landmark.
"It's kind of sad to see that name fade away," said Allen. "It faded away years ago on the ScottTrade Center, which was originally the Kiel Center. That link to the past and to someone who championed the public good in such a big way, replacing it with a private name does reflect the times we live in."
Renovating aging auditoriums is nothing new for Dave Checketts. Before starting SCP, he led Madison Square Garden's renovation of Radio City Music Hall in New York. Checketts said while the Peabody is a smaller venue than Radio City, its renovation may have a proportionally larger impact on downtown St. Louis, especially if other projects such as the Cardinal's Ballpark Village take off.