Inside the old Carolina Theatre
As the Foundation for the Carolinas gears up to start construction on its ambitious remake of Carolina Theatre, a landmark that’s been dormant for almost 40 years is set to be reborn.
You should start seeing work on the theater – the full name is Carolina Theatre at Belk Place – at Sixth and North Tryon streets in the next four to eight weeks. The first steps for the Foundation include trying to reassemble the theater’s original facade (stored in numbered chunks under the stage), removing lead paint from the building and closing the small park at the corner. The park’s furnishings will be relocated to the Rail Trail along the Lynx Blue Line.
“It’s been waiting, all these years,” said Laura Smith, executive vice president at the Foundation for the Carolinas. She’s overseeing the $40 million project for the group. The budget has been funded mostly with donations to the Foundation, whose assets top $2.1 billion, and includes the $3.7 million value of the theater, donated by the city of Charlotte.
Local leaders are hopeful that the new project will help spark a broader redevelopment of the North Tryon corridor, which has lagged the explosive growth happening along South Tryon and Stonewall streets. And for a city accustomed to criticism that it tears down its history, the theater offers a chance to restore and reuse, rather than replace, a local gem.
The theater dates to 1927. For decades, the 28,000-square-foot theater was a major venue, playing first silent and then sound movies and hosting vaudeville acts. When it opened, ads in the Observer advised patrons to leave their fans at home, because this theater would have “manufactured weather” – or air conditioning – and noted electricity had been “freely utilized” for the lighting and projecting apparatus.
Later, performers there included Bob Hope, Katharine Hepburn and Elvis Presley. The theater has sat vacant and slowly decaying since it closed in 1978, laid low by the rise of multiplex theaters and the suburbs. Charlotte City Council voted in 2012 to give the theater to the Foundation for $1.
The theater’s windowless interior feels like a different world, entirely cut off from the crowds hurrying by a few dozen feet away on Tryon Street. The space is unexpectedly large and grand despite the peeling paint and chipped plaster, with a stage elegantly framed by the faded remains of murals, Corinthian columns, coats of arms and plaster detailing.
“When you come in here, you should feel transported to 1927,” said Smith. They’ve worked with a New York firm that specializes in historical restoration to compare the theater’s finishes to historical catalogs, to replicate the original look as closely as possible.
“There are going to be some really interesting things that have been stripped away,” said Smith. “All those pieces will come back. The interior will be as faithful as we can be.”
As part of the renovation, the theater will be joined with the Foundation’s headquarters next door, and workers will build additional office space for the Foundation to use in the future. When it reopens, Carolina Theatre will serve as a community meeting space and host arts programs, including movies and music performances. Foundation officials are discussing everything from TED Talks to Saturday morning cartoons for children as they dream up new programming.
The original theater seated 1,400, while the renovated venue will accommodate about 950.
The 250-room InterContinental hotel that will rise in a new tower atop the theater’s lobby (roughly where the park sits now) is planned to open in mid-2019, at the same time as the theater. The foundation has leased the air rights to build over the hotel to Valor Hospitality, a private developer and hotel operator. The lease payments are expected to provide Foundation for the Carolinas with a revenue stream to help offset operating costs for the theater, which is expected to run an annual deficit of $250,000 to $350,000.
The InterContinental will be one of several new, upscale hotels opening in Charlotte over the next few years. A Kimpton hotel next to Romare Bearden Park is opening this fall, an AC Hotel/Residence Inn combination is opening later this year or early next year atop the EpiCentre and a Grand Bohemian hotel is starting construction later this year next to the Carrillon building on West Trade Street.