During a construction tour, Superintendent Bob Ferguson from Bonnett, Page and Stone shines his flashlight to into the upper balcony stage area of the Colonial Theatre in downtown Laconia. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
The upper balcony ceiling of the Colonial Theatre in downtown Laconia. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
BY MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Work restore the Colonial Theatre to its original glory is underway as a crew from Bonnette, Page & Stone Corporation has begun removing the walls and ceilings that have divided the auditorium, and obscuring its ornate decor for the past three decades.
Bob Ferguson, who is supervising the work, said he has contributed to restoring a number of historic buildings around the state, including the Gale Memorial Building that houses the Laconia Public Library, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but added "this is a once-in-a-lifetime job."
Built by Benjamin Piscopo, the theater opened in April 1914. Its colorful frescoes, marbled floors, ornate plasterwork and gilded finishes fashioned by Italian artisans placed it squarely among the grandest entertainment venues in New England. After the First World War, live performances steadily gave way to motion pictures, and in 1983 the auditorium was partitioned, horizontally and vertically, into five theaters, shrouding the finishes behind blank walls.
The first step will be to remove all the partitions, the dropped ceiling and the five projection booths to open the auditorium and balconies.
"It was so cool when we took the screen down to open the stage all up," Ferguson said, pointing to the gilded proscenium arch above the stage, which remains halved by a partition and ceiling that remain to be removed.
Although Ferguson referred to the work as "demolition," he granted that it is more akin to "disassembly," stressing that "We're taking great care not to damage anything any worse than it already is."
He said that working in a darkened space with limited but targeted lighting is challenging.
Ferguson said that once the auditorium is emptied of the partitions and accretions added over the years, an assessment will be made to determine the extent and estimate the cost of restoring it.
The auditorium represents about 20,000 square feet of a property that measures 38,642 square feet shared among three buildings sitting on a half-acre with 91 feet of frontage on Main Street and 209 feet frontage on Canal Street. In addition to the theater, the property includes four storefronts on Main Street, each about 1,500 square feet; five commercial units on Canal Street, ranging between 250 and 1,500 square feet; and 18 apartments on the second and third floors of the Building on Main Street.
Although what Ferguson called "loose items," including appliances, furniture and the like, are being removed from the residential units, work has not yet begun to renovate them.
Last year, the entire complex was acquired by 609 Main Street LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Belknap Economic Development Council, for $1.4 million, borrowing the purchase price from the city of Laconia for a term of no more than 18 months with interim payments of interest only. The Belknap Economic Development Council is arranging a package of approximately $15 million to finance the renovation of the entire property. The package will include repayment of the first loan from the city and a second borrowing from the city of between $2 million and $3 million, again with payments of interest only, for a term of seven years,
Once the theater is renovated and restored, the city will lease it as the sole tenant for seven years, operating it as a civic auditorium. After seven years, the city will have the option to acquire the theater, but not the residential and commercial units on the property, by forgiving its outstanding loan to the Belknap Economic Development Council.
Walls start to come down in the balcony area of the Colonial Theatre as restoration work begins. This view shows how the theater was divided in the 1980s, creating five separate theaters. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
Superintendent Bob Ferguson from Bonnett, Page and Stone explains the scope of work in progress inside the main level theater as walls begin to come down during beginning stages of renovation project. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia
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