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Restoring a 1920s Theater to Revitalize Flint’s Downtown

Closed for almost two decades, the historic Capitol Theatre in Flint, Michigan, is being restored and reopened as a cultural hub.

The Capitol Theatre façade (courtesy the Capitol Theatre)

This January, the 1928 Capitol Theatre in downtown Flint, Michigan, started to look more like its old self, when a blue blade sign proclaiming “CAPITOL” was added to its façade. However, unlike the old sign of vaudevillian days, this replacement is lit up with LED lights, one of the many faithful restorations of the historic theater that incorporate 21st-century technology. When the venue reopens in late 2017 or early 2018 after two dormant decades, it’s hoped that the refurbished theater will act as a revitalizing hub for Flint’s cultural community.

The Capitol Theatre auditorium (courtesy the Capitol Theatre)

The project, which broke ground last July, is being led by the Whiting, a fellow Flint theater (that hosted a Democratic presidential debate last year), with the nonprofit Uptown Reinvestment Corporation. The philanthropically funded Capitol will also be managed as a nonprofit, hosting performances, plays, concerts, and other events. “The Capitol was built in the ’20s as a vaudeville house with a single balcony and horseshoe design, so every seat is angled to face the stage,” Jarret M. Haynes, executive director of the Whiting, told Hyperallergic. “The curvature adds a certain amount of intimacy to the space. It’s detailed, it’s ornate, but it’s comfortable, it’s informal.” The theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

The architect behind the Capitol was John Eberson, who designed numerous vaudeville and movie palaces around the United States in the early 20th century, including two of the Loew’s Wonder Theaters in the New York City area (the 1928 Loew’s Valencia Theatre in Queens and the 1929 Loew’s Paradise Theatre in the Bronx). “Eberson was famous for the atmospheric theater,” Haynes said. “They all create a sense of place and a sense of arrival when you get there. The very act of going through the theater doors transports you to a different location.”

The Capitol Theatre in the 1920s (courtesy the Capitol Theatre)

Much of the current project will be devoted to reviving this immersive experience, like reproducing the original seats, updating old lighting, and restoring and recreating plasterwork details in the auditorium and lobby.

“The theater was meant to evoke a Roman or Italian piazza,” Haynes said. “It was as if you were sitting in an outdoor amphitheater. The ceiling of the theater is painted a night sky blue and has constellation patterns on it, now restored with LED lighting. There’s a lot of terra-cotta work, a lot of plaster statuary, that’s made to look like marble.”

The Capitol Theatre façade (courtesy the Capitol Theatre)

Public tours are planned for later this year, and Haynes said he was encouraged by the response to the theater’s first open house last July. Eight hundred people attended, despite the 95-degree heat and thunderstorm humidity, and hundreds more watched on Facebook Live. Some visitors showed up just minutes before closing: it turned out they’d made the open house part of a downtown day, with dinner and shopping — the exact engagement the Capitol project is aiming to promote. “We were encouraged not only by the interest in the community to see the building, but also the microcosmic example of the events, activity, and activation for the space,” Haynes said.

Over the near century that the Capitol has stood in downtown Flint, the city experienced a rise and decline, particularly after the downsizing of General Motors plants in the 1980s. It’s also facing an ongoing toxic drinking water crisis. The reopening of this theater, a relic of the city’s past, might seem small, but if it’s successful, it could become a vibrant economic and cultural resource for local residents.

The installation of the new marquee blade of the Capitol Theatre in 2017 (photo by Rod Jones)
The Capitol Theatre façade (courtesy the Capitol Theatre)
The Capitol Theatre façade (courtesy the Capitol Theatre)
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