Dominic Massa and Eric Paulsen / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS – For the past couple of months, construction work outside the historic Saenger Theatre is the only sign that most people have seen of the effort to restore the building on Canal & Rampart. But inside, as Channel 4 cameras saw on Thursday, the job is just as intense, with nearly every inch of the building under construction or soon to be.
That includes the familiar marquee (dismantled for restoration), the entrances, the arcade or lobby, and even the stage and seating areas, which will be transformed as part of the $51 million restoration effort. The project, which was dealt some setbacks along the way, is now scheduled for a June 2013 reopening.
“All the seats have been removed for construction,” explained general manager David Skinner as he stood in front of the massive scaffolding that now fills the seating area. Skinner is general manager of ACE Theatrical Group, the company that owns and will operate the theatre, along with the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.
“The artisans will begin a lengthy process of redoing the painting the ceiling, return that to the original 1927 color scheme, which is totally different than what we see today.”
You get the feeling that a lot will look different when the theatre opens its doors next summer, but in a more authentic way. The familiar touches will remain, including the ceiling resembling a starry constellation, the marble fixtures, statues and ornamental elements that will all be part of the effort to return the building to the way it looked when it opened 85 years ago as a movie theater.
That's where a set of historic, original blueprints comes in. They are literally blue prints - hand-drawn in ink on linen by the original architects working for Emile Weil and Albert Weiblen Marble & Granite Co.
“These were sequestered away in the back part of an office, under a lot of material that didn’t get taken out until they were moving out of the building,” explained Gary Martinez, the architect whose Washington, D.C.-based company, Martinez+Johnson Architecture is spearheading the renovation.
“We were pretty much finished with our drawings, quite frankly, but still once they told us they had found these drawings, we were able to take information and actually change our drawings to make them more authentic,” he said.
Martinez explained that the 1926 blueprints cover various sections of the theatre, including the area near the Rampart St. entrance called the arcade. In recent years, escalators were installed in the area detailed in some of the blueprints. Martinez explained that the original drawings, as well as photos, floor plans and newspaper clippings, will help his architects redesign that section of the theatre in a more accurate, historical fashion.
“One of the things the blueprints give us is the original architect's intention for the building,” he said. “As much as anything else, it’s the spirit and intention that we're trying to capture as well as just the physical nature of any given piece of the building.”
The blueprints will be donated to Tulane University’s architecture school once Martinez and his team wrap up their work.
In addition to being authentic, the new Saenger will also be updated, with new technology and bigger spaces to house bigger shows, including touring Broadway productions, music concerts, symphony and opera performances and dance productions. The bigger space includes expanding on to Iberville Street and the adjoining buildings on Canal.
City officials see the Saenger restoration as another major step forward for the once-vibrant downtown theater district.
“We’ve seen it with the Joy, and in hoping to get the Loew’s State (State Palace) back on track and I think it will anchor the area, as it has served as an anchor for future development on this end of Canal Street,” said Cindy Connick, executive director of the Canal Street Development Corporation, the city agency which is overseeing the renovation.
For the Saenger, it's not just about economic development and the future, but also a storied past that many New Orleanians will remember on opening night.
“Whether it was their first movie, first Broadway show or first date, people have fond memories of this place and I think when they come in, they are going to be truly impressed,” Skinner said.