Hitting the Right Notes
How do your restore a city’s long neglected cultural gem? The answer is carefully, very carefully.
Paric Corp. spent three years planning the $78.7 million restoration and modernization of the former Kiel Opera House into the Peabody Opera House, and then undertook the 14-month construction project with meticulous care, as seen in the way historic plaster work was restored and bronze and gold leaf was reapplied to the historic murals.
The dome ceiling over the theater bowl is all new. The old 10-inch-by-10-inch tiles were replaced with acoustical plaster. The scaffolding that enabled people to work on the ceiling alone cost over $100,000 and took six weeks to assemble. The carpet is new. The original lobby floor was polished. Gold leaf around column capitals and on the proscenium of the main stage was re-touched and glazed. The granite steps in the front were rebuilt. A local artist carved two new bears to decorate the Fourteenth Street entrance.
One important principle guided all of the work. “We didn’t want it to look new. We wanted it to look like a 1930s building,” said Paric Project Manager Keith Wolkoff.
At the same time, significant changes were made to the building’s systems to bring them up to modern standards for life safety and comfort, and to the back-of-the-house operations to bring them up to modern production standards. To a theater goer, however, the changes are so subtle that many will pass unnoticed.
For example, in the 1930s, theater workers carried scenery and equipment for traveling shows in through a small door on Fifteenth Street, or used a cantilever beam to hoist material up to the door. “Today’s shows have 10-to-20 tractor trailers full of scenery and equipment and that door wouldn’t work,” Wolkoff said. So, Paric put in a dock large enough to handle four trailers simultaneously and two hoists. “That was the biggest challenge,” said Gerry Jensen, supervisor.
To make room for the loading dock, Paric took out a corkscrew ramp that had connected the Opera House to a convention hall that was demolished in the 1990s and replaced by the Scottrade Center that is the modern home of the St. Louis Blues hockey team. “When we broke through the floor, we discovered an 18-foot-deep hole under it. We had to fill it with rock to bring it up to grade. A job we thought would take 2 months ended up taking six,” Jensen said.
Opera House patrons won’t see the new sound partition between the Opera House and the Scottrade Center, either, but they would notice if it wasn’t there. The original opera house and convention center were built to operate as one. The back stage partitions could be moved to open the theater up on both sides for large conventions or concerts. But on nights when an opera house performance coincides with a hockey game next door, “the last thing anyone in the opera house will want to hear is the horns from the Blues game behind the stage,” said Wolkoff.
Paric’s team built an 80-foot-tall, grout-filled partition behind the stage to keep the sounds of hockey out of the opera house. They first had to build a huge steel structure beneath the stage to carry the weight of the grout-filled wall.
Looking Like 1930, Feeling Like 2011
Paric was intent on making sure that the restored Opera House looks like a 1930s building, but doesn’t feel like one.
Theater seats in the 1930s, for example, were narrower than people are used to today. As seat comfort is a major determinant in the success of a performance center, the theater was outfitted with all new seats. “In most cases, the new seats are three inches wider than the old ones,” Wolkoff said. The manufacturer of the 1930s seats is still in business, however, so Paric was able to have the new seats replicate the appearance of the old ones. “We reused the original decorative iron seat standards along the aisles,” Wolkoff added.
A lot of detailed planning went into the layout of the larger, but fewer, seats. One issue was maintaining sight lines; another was maintaining ventilation and air flow. “In changing out the seats, we had to deal with the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system in the floor and the diffusers under the seats,” said Christopher Malone, Paric project executive. That meant punching new holes in the concrete floor for new diffusers, and filling in old ones, in a planned way to keep the air comfortable for patrons.
Murphy Co. was the mechanical and plumbing contractor on the job. The original opera house was not air conditioned, but there was a significant amount of ventilation ductwork installed to keep air moving throughout the 380,000-square-foot building. “We were able to clean up and use the existing duct,” said Mark Bengard, vice president, Murphy Co.
The oversize, square ductwork, measuring four feet on a side, was in great shape. “It was built like a tanker…. It will probably outlast some modern ductwork,” he said. The sound characteristics of air moving through ductwork are a significant part of the mechanical challenge in any performance space, but the huge size of ductwork in the opera house made the challenge easier. “We were able to move air at a much lower velocity, so you don’t get air noise through fittings that you get through a traditional system,” Bengard said.
Murphy Co. also installed sound traps in the ductwork to reduce noise even more. As a result, “the sound characteristics are phenomenal,” Wolkoff said, and it is comfortable everywhere. It does not look like anything has changed, however. “We maintained the existing grills. You can’t tell we did anything in side theaters and lounges, some of the ceiling medallions actually are grills for return air ducts. “The plumbing portion was the most difficult portion of this job, and that is unusual,” said Bengard.
New bathroom facilities were added where none had been; coat check rooms around the seating portion of the main theater were turned into food service areas, and a new kitchen and cooking areas were installed. “It made plumbing quite challenging,” Bengard said. “We didn’t know the conditions,” added John Kobbe, project manager, Murphy Co.
“To get from A to B where there hadn’t been a restroom or kitchen, we worked above the lobby ceiling. We had to cut access holes in a couple areas in the plaster and put extension ladders up to fish lines behind plaster walls that had tile backer. Paric was great to work with. We minimized the access holes and they plastered behind us when we were done,” he said.
Routing new wiring throughout the building without destroying walls also was a challenge, Wolkoff said. Kaiser Electric was the design/build electrical contractor. “We were responsible for all of the electrical except the sound system,” said Michael Murphy, senior project manager. The most unusual feature of the job was maintaining the historical look of the lighting, he said.
Extraordinary Attention to Detail Kaiser Electric worked with St. Louis Antique Lighting to assemble complete, working fixtures from fixtures that had been in storage for decades, and replicate missing parts when they did not have enough of the originals. “We even got the historical lighting onto an emergency generator, so in emergencies you don’t have odd eyeball lights for egress. We wanted to keep the historical look even then,” Murphy said.
In the back-of-the-house areas, Kaiser Electric replaced the old incandescent lighting with modern florescent or LED lighting to increase efficiency. In the theater dome, they installed Color Kinetics LEDs, which phase shift from green to red to blue. “Color Kinetics are standard in the theatrical industry now,” Murphy said. “We’ve done them before, but never in a dome,” he added. Kaiser Electric started planning the work with Paric three years before the project started. Eighty percent of the wiring was in the dome lighting and theatrical lighting controls, said Murphy. “This was an amazing project, and the largest restoration job we’ve done,” he said.
The project team’s extraordinary attention to detail even extended to the doors and door hardware. H&G/Schultz Door took the lead role in logging the openings and taking photos for historical preservation. “There were different levels of historical preservation throughout the building,” said Vice President Steve Marsh. “We had a four-person team work on the project,” he said.
Reproducing the historical stile and rail wooden doors for those openings where the doors were missing turned out to be very difficult. The doors had oak veneer, “but the graining looks completely different from architectural grade oak veneers today,” Marsh said, because oak used in 1933 was grown differently from the way oak used today is grown. “It was almost impossible to replicate,” he said. “We sifted through hundreds and hundreds of veneers to get as close to the old graining as possible. I think we did a good job,” he said.
The three-inch-thick steel doors on the front entrance were not much easier. “Paric was going to rebuild the entire front entrance if those doors couldn’t be repaired,” Marsh said. “They probably weigh 500-pounds each. We recommended they go to a metal fabricator and have them sanded and rebuilt,” he said. And then they had to retrofit automatic operators and a card access system on them. Once they had the doors, they needed the door hardware.
“We found out that the existing hardware is no longer made and no one replicates it, so we looked throughout the country for sources that could repair it,” Marsh said.”We found a company in Kansas that could repair and refinish the door closers, which are huge. They weigh 60 pounds,” he said. They also worked with a consultant to design a pair of 15-foot sound doors to separate the stage area from the new dock, and found a company in California to make them. “It was almost a MacGyver sort of job to make everything work. It was very cool, one of our marquee jobs,” Marsh said.
For Wolkoff, the project was unique. “You work on something for three years and try to ask all the pertinent questions and challenge the subs. You think you have everything, figured out, but I walk through it now and in my wildest dreams I never imaged it would turn out as beautiful as it has,” he said.