Reflections on the Gem Theater Revitalization Project
Article written by by Dennis Bradley, Principal of b+a architecture
A recent report by the Kansas Business Journal about the undergoing efforts to raise additional funding for the Historic 18th and Vine District got me reminiscing about the financial and design challenges I was confronted 30 years ago when I was working on the Gem Theater revitalization project. The Gem Theater with the neon signs is now the jewel of the Historic 18th & Vine District. It has been receiving rave reviews, ever since, as an intimate (500 seat) performance center.
But this performance center looked different two decades ago. The Theater was originally designed as a movie theater in 1912 by George Carman. Walking into the building then you were confronted with a roof that had collapsed on the theater seating on the first floor. All that was left were four walls and the marquee out front. The front facade and about 20 feet back into the building were all that could be salvaged.
In 1985 I started working with Pat Jordan, who had a passion to see this facility brought back to life. But at the time we were challenged by financial barriers: there was no funding in place to do anything about the theater, which was owned by BEU. Besides, the movie theater layout was not going to be acceptable for Ms Jordan vision of a performing arts facility.
Through several years of meetings with her board and presentations to fund raising groups throughout the city the design of the facility evolved. The funds or space were not there for a sizable performing arts venue with a traditional proscenium arch so it was decided to design the theater similar to a TV studio. Finally, early 1990's with the assistance of then Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, funding was made available in conjunction with the 18th and Vine revitalization.
With the fund available, I as the the project designer/manager while a partner at Group One Architects at the time, transformed the dilapidate shell of an old theater into a Gem of a performing arts center. Major modifications were made to achieve the functionality of a performing center. I rotated the layout of the theater seating 90 degrees and expanded it to the east in order to fit the larger stage, back house and seating in. I also increased the lobby area with balcony above to create a larger lobby that could be used for special events and gallery space. The facility was also expanded to the west to house office, meeting rooms and a large board room.
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