LACONIA — Barrett Salta remembers being a young boy and holding his mother’s hand as they walked together into the Colonial Theater to see a show. Now, as vice president of a construction firm, he carries a different kind of excitement when he visits the venue.
Salta’s company, Bonnette, Page and Stone, has been renovating the city-owned theater since the beginning of the year. The work is expected to be completed around the beginning of 2021.
The $10-million job isn’t the biggest in Bonnette, Page and Stone’s portfolio, Salta said, but, “It is one of the most important.”
The renovation of the 1914 theater, which hasn’t hosted a performance in decades, is hoped to spark an economic revival of the downtown area.
“This is once in a lifetime that you get to restore one of these,” Salta said about the Colonial.
The renovation phase of the theater began at the end of 2019, and Salta said that the project was already in “full swing” by the time the coronavirus disrupted just about everything. The pandemic presented only a hiccup for the Colonial renovation, though. The project’s projected end date was pushed back about a month due to what he called the “nervousness” of some specialty contractors who were coming in from out-of-state. Those were painters who specialize in historic renovations, but the rest of the contractors used were local, he said.
“This area in the state is full of excellent craftsmen,” Salta said. On any given day this year, there were between 40 and 60 people working at the job site. Those tradespeople were tasked with un-doing prior renovations that turned the theater into a multi-screen movie house, and returning it to the grandeur it had when it first opened more than a century ago.
“Everything here has been brought back to the early 1900s,” Salta said. “This is going to be part of the historic register.”
Tim Burke, BPS’s job superintendent, said one puzzle of the renovation has been figuring out how to add modern systems, such as fire suppression and thousands of miles of electrical conduit, without altering the historic value of the auditorium, which has been named after former mayor Edward J. Engler, who championed the city initiative to purchase and renovate the theater.
“It’s really a great example of bringing back a beautiful building,” Burke said. “And it presented some good challenges.”
Before that work could happen, though, there was a lot of clean-up to do.
“It was very run-down and let-go,” Salta said. There were hazardous materials, such as asbestos and PCBs that needed abating. Many of the surfaces were also “dripping with mold,” he said.
“Getting it to the point that restoration could begin, that’s been the challenge,” Salta said. Since then, though, crews have discovered what a diamond in the rough they were working with.
“This theater is actually quite unique and rather ornate,” Salta said. “This theater is really a gem.”
While the end result will be as close in appearance to the 1914 theater, there will be one notable difference. The Colonial’s original capacity was 1,500 seats. Due to modern safety codes and the fact that audience members are larger today than they used to be, the theater will only be able to seat around 750 people when it reopens.
Burke suggested that the classic rock group Jethro Tull would be a good act to have on opening night. Salta said he doesn’t have much of a preference whose name is on the marquee, as long as he’s in the audience.
“I can’t wait to see what opening night is going to be. I hope I can get a ticket,” Salta said.
The Laconia City Council voted earlier this summer to hire Spectacle Management, located in Lexington, Massachusetts, to run the Colonial Theater. Pete Lalley, Spectacle’s president, said on Friday that negotiations with the city are still being finalized, so he couldn’t comment on when the first show would be presented.
Spectacle specializes in musical and comedy performances, Lalley said, and dramatic productions will be managed by Bryan and Johanna Halperin, who were part of the team that founded the Winnipesaukee Playhouse.
Bryan Halperin said, “All of us who are in talks to be involved are very excited about the potential, but COVID is obviously going to present some interesting challenges for 2021.”
Lalley characterized negotiations with the city and other local partners as “really good discussions” and said he’s “excited to take the next step.”
Spectacle manages seven venues in Massachusetts. Lalley said he handles the booking for the Lowell Auditorium, which is another historic venue that was used as a catalyst for economic revitalization.
Hundreds of theaters were built around the country in the early 1900s, Lalley said. Sadly, most of those are no longer in existence, he added.
“It’s nice to see these preserved. So many were knocked down. To see the Colonial restored is certainly the exception to the rule,” Lalley said.