Shuttered for almost 40 years, the ornamental façade of the Kings Theatre—towering over the storefronts along Brooklyn, New York's busy Flatbush Avenue—stood as a sad reminder of the area’s decline, beginning in the 1970s, from a once glorious past. Now its decorative terracotta panels and sculptural flourishes are a sign of progress as the theater prepares to reopen in January 2015.
The façade, however, does not come close to equaling the splendor of the newly restored interiors. Opened in 1929 as one of five Loew’s Wonder Theatres constructed in New York and New Jersey, it was designed by Chicago architecture firm Rapp & Rapp as an entertainment palace where films and vaudeville acts were presented amidst a sumptuous backdrop inspired by the Palace of Versailles. Since closing in 1977, water infiltration and looting had reduced the theater’s coffered ceilings, ornate plaster walls, walnut paneling and columns, decorative paint, and marble and metal finishes almost to rubble. Structural damage and a failure in the roof system added to what one restorer called an “urban wreck.”
In 2013, The Kings Theatre Redevelopment Company—a consortium of ACE Theatrical Group, the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, and the National Development Council—was chosen by the New York City Economic Development Corporation to bring the theater back as an economic engine and cultural hub. ACE has undertaken similar projects across the country, including the Boston Opera House, the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre and the Majestic Theatre, both in San Antonio, Texas, and the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, which reopened last year after a $53 million renovation to its 1927 Italianate building, destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. “These projects revitalize neighborhoods and create jobs and opportunities,” says ACE president and CEO David Anderson. “Our vision with Kings is to produce programming for the entire community.”
The first step however, was to stabilize the structure—listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. ACE partnered with Washington, D.C.-based architects Martinez + Johnson, who also collaborated on the Boston Opera House and the Saenger. “It’s an honor to work on these types of projects,” says Martinez + Johnson president Gary Martinez. “But each one has its own set of challenges, particularly in transforming them into 21st-century performance spaces.”
Each also has its own set of surprises. In Brooklyn, the last house manager at the theater, now 100 years old, is donating back original furniture, which had been in her possession for years. The 2,000-pound chandeliers that graced the nearly 50-foot-tall lobby—spared from theft by the fact that no one could reach or carry them—are being restored in St. Louis. The entire balcony and part of the orchestra level has been re-raked to accommodate sight lines for live performances. A new building was added behind the stage to house a loading dock, dressing rooms, and support spaces. Next to it, an astounding 700 free parking spaces are an added draw to bring audiences to the 3,200-seat theater, which aspires to be a destination for large-scale popular entertainment and a resource for local arts groups and community organizations.