The interior of The Colonial Theatre has been cleared of the divisions into five separate theaters and awaits restoration. (Rick Green/Laconia Daily Sun)
Downtown project gets approval for site plan as fundraising efforts continue
By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Lorraine Benoit recalls the magical feel of sunlight streaming through the entry of the ornate Colonial Theatre in 1951 when she got a job as an usherette at age 16.
A $14 million project to restore the 103-year-old building and surrounding property may just return a little of that magic.
Architect Rob Turpin also hopes to create a fun destination and foster downtown development.
“We want people to have a great time here,” Turpin said in the building on a freezing Monday morning. “Obviously, with the theater being restored, we'll bring back a lot of the grandeur, but beyond that we want to make sure their experiences here are fabulous. If they see and appreciate the level of detail with the revitalization work, that's icing on the cake.”
A 3D rendering of the project shows a brick building with clean lines, expansive windows and the trademark vertical "Colonial" sign. The city Planning Board gave conditional approval to the project's site plan Tuesday.
The yearlong work to refurbish the theater, 14 apartments and four commercial units is to begin in late spring or early summer. The theater hasn't been used in years, and major work will be needed on electrical, plumbing and heat and air systems.
It began its life with 1,400 seats, but will have 750 seats, including 300 in the balcony, after restoration. Modern standards require wider seats and aisles.
Justin Slattery, executive director of the Belknap Economic Development Council, which is the entity that owns the Colonial properties, said 300 people have contributed $1.5 million in a public fundraising campaign. Federal and state tax credits and grants as well as a city loan are part of the overall funding package. The city provided a short-term loan of $1.4 million to the BEDC in July 2015 that enabled the BEDC to buy the properties from Patricia Baldi.
“We think this will be a catalytic project for Laconia and the region,” he said. “We know we will have a strong economic development effect. Property tax values will grow. Jobs will be created.”
Hints of grandeur can be seen in the entryway's smudged dark and light marble, crumbling gold plasterwork and dusty purple-tinted prism glass.
In an effort to restore the theater in a historically accurate way, Turpin's Laconia architecture firm has interviewed people with knowledge of its history, including Benoit, the one-time usherette.
He has also studied other restoration projects, including the 1924 Colonial Theatre in Keene, the 1915 Palace Theatre in Manchester and the 1878 Music Hall in Portsmouth.
Benoit's first memories of the theater were as a 9-year-old girl, when it cost 12 cents to see a show. This was well after the days when it mainly hosted vaudeville acts.
When she got her job there as a junior in high school, she felt privileged.
“On sultry summer afternoons, the theater was cool inside, as it always was,” she remembered. “I was standing in the alcove space next to the cashier's cage, and the sunlight was streaming in through the main entry, illuminating the entire lobby.”
She once stepped outside and saw John Carradine, the famous actor, and got his autograph.
Brian Waldron, 39, has different memories of the theater. He recalls going there in the 1980s after it was divided into several small cinemas.
He now owns a hair salon in Concord, a city that has had its own downtown revitalization. New energy and economic investment has flowed to the area. He thinks the same thing can happen in Laconia.
“Concord's downtown was a sleepy place before it got a facelift,” Waldron said. “Now it's a walking downtown, with places where people can commune. The arts are really the driver.”
He sees similar potential for Laconia's downtown, and he has a personal interest. Waldron is a singer-songwriter who performs in Concord and elsewhere. He would like to see the Colonial Theatre become a venue for him and other musicians:
“Absolutely. I'd love to play there,” said Waldron.
The above view of the Colonial Theatre shows it from Main Street. Below is the view from Canal Street, which shows an entrance to the upper-level apartments. (Courtesy Misiaszek Turpin Architecture)
This postcard image shows what The Colonial Theatre looked like when it opened in 1914 as a venue for vaudeville. It later served as a movie house. (Courtesy photo)
The marquee of The Colonial Theatre in 1949 for the showing of "Mighty Joe Young." (Courtesy photo)
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