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Mississippi Grandeur

Project: The Riley Center, Meridian, MS

Architect: Martinez & Johnson Architecture, Washington, DC, (opera house), Thomas Johnson, principal in charge; Pryor & Morrow Archi-tects, P.A., Columbus, MS, (conference center), Roger Pryor, principal in charge

Construction Manager: White Construction Company, Ridgeland, MS

Contractors: Panola Construction Co., Batesville, MS; EverGreene Painting Studios, New York, NY (historic decorative surfaces)

By Eve M. Kahn

In 1928, a department-store owner in Meridian, MS, set up a time capsule. He didn't mean to; he just intended to briefly close down a 1,000-seat theater inside his store – for complicated and intriguing business reasons. But the room – gloriously ornamented by a renowned theater architect – ended up shuttered, moldering and frozen in the Jazz Age until last year.

"You hear about American theaters that were closed for 20 years straight or 30 years, but 80 years? That's probably a record," says Jeff Greene, owner of EverGreene Painting Studios in New York City. His firm has collaborated with the Washington, DC, firm Martinez & Johnson and the Columbus, MS, firm Pryor & Morrow on the $25-million resuscitation of Meridian's once sleeping beauty as a cultural center. Since September 2006, Mississippi State University (MSU) has been hosting conferences and oft-sold-out concerts there (acts so far have ranged from Lyle Lovett to Wynton Marsalis, Bo Diddley and the Temptations). This is an improbable tale, involving the Civil War, German opera, the Civil Rights Movement, lasers and wallpaper.

In 1890, a pair of German-Jewish half-brothers, Israel Marks and Levi Rothenberg, built Meridian's first major department store and first opera house. Sherman's troops had razed the town in 1864, but the inhabitants managed to rebuild quickly and even expand, partly because five converging railroad lines brought tourists and freight traffic to Meridian.

Marks and Rothenberg set out to attract locals and tourists with high-style architecture. They hired Swedish immigrant architect G.M. Torgenson to fill a downtown block with a five-story Romanesque Revival store, its brick and stucco shell topped in turrets and mansard roofs. The storekeepers set aside a quarter of the building for the Grand Opera House, designed by J.B. McElfatrick & Sons, which had offices in New York City and St. Louis. Between the 1850s and 1920s, the McElfatricks (pronounced MAC-el-fat-ricks) produced some 400 theaters nationwide, including opera houses for New York City and Philadelphia. (Only about 25 of the firm's works survive.)

In Meridian, the McElfatricks set a shallowly barrel-vaulted ceiling over wavy horseshoe-shaped balconies and arched box seats. The architects engulfed every feature in flowery detail: composition moldings, cast-iron railings, papier-mâché column capitals and nymph reliefs, and dozens of wallpaper patterns. "It's one of the most dramatic cases of 'horror vacui' I've ever seen," Greene says.

The Marks-Rothenberg Co. inaugurated the opera house with Johann Strauss II's "Gypsy Baron" and soon brought in other avant-garde productions, including Ibsen's "Ghosts" and Sarah Bernhardt in "La Tosca." According to MSU historian Dennis J. Mitchell, "Meridian's elite turned out in formal dress, although almost none of them would understand a word of the operas."

At times, though, the opera house went populist, putting on minstrel shows or acts by American celebrities like Groucho Marx, George Gershwin and Helen Hayes. "Meridian was a major stop for all kinds of theater companies on their way to New Orleans," explains Thomas Johnson, principal in charge of the project at Martinez & Johnson. (When African-Americans performed there, Mitchell notes, black audiences were allowed to sit partway into the comfortable upholstered dress circle, and were not just segregated to benches on the upper balcony.)

Marks-Rothenberg kept upgrading the theater décor. "Whenever any wallpaper needed patching, they'd just fish out another roll from the attic of the store," Johnson says. "They put in an encyclopedia of late 19th and early 20th century wallpaper: flocked, embossed, gilded, silk-screened, hand- or roller-printed, every technique you can think of," adds Greene. Chinoiserie ended up abutting Islamic latticework alongside Neoclassical urns and cartouches as well as some humble burlap.

By the 1920s, live acts even in such sumptuous surroundings could not compete for ticket-buyers with Hollywood movies. A movie-palace operator called Saenger Theatres leased the opera house in 1923, but then built larger quarters a block away in a Moorish/Deco building. Saenger proposed gutting the opera house and tried to break its lease, Marks-Rothenberg sued, and the companies' appeals and counter-appeals dragged through the Mississippi courts until Saenger went bankrupt in the 1950s.

The store, meanwhile, used the opera house for storage and eventually tore out the lobby stairs and sold off the seats and railings. The ceiling collapsed, the papers peeled. Rumors circulated that a lady opera singer's ghost occasionally trilled onstage. "Nobody had seen the place in so many years," Johnson says, "it became a kind of urban legend."

By the 1960s, Meridian's downtown was in decline (and the triple murders nearby of civil-rights workers in 1964 yet worsened the area's reputation). Marks-Rothenberg tried to upgrade its image, cladding the brick exterior in polychrome steel panels, but by 1990 the business was closed and the city had taken over the property. Among the few people who remembered the theater's existence was Elliott Street, a Meridian-born actor and historian who gave Jeff Greene a tour of the ruins. "I walked in," Greene recalls, "and thought, 'This is incredibly cool, but what could ever possibly bring this place back?'"

Restoration momentum was quietly building among university administrators and government officials. A Meridian-based charity, the Riley Foundation, jump-started the process in 2000 with a $10-million gift (which city and state agencies have supplemented). Martinez & Johnson took on the theater portion, while Pryor & Morrow handled the store. Quantapoint, Inc., a Pittsburgh, PA-based laser measuring company, surveyed every inch of the building for reams of data that informed the project's digital base drawings.

"We figured out exactly what was still there, in what condition, and what was missing, and fed the data into CAD files," Johnson explains. "It would have been almost impossible to measure and document the place any other way. No two walls are parallel, there are charming flaws and asymmetries everywhere."

The store walls, the architects discovered, were failing. "The brick was soft, the soil was poor, and wood infill was basically holding up the place by inertia," says Johnson. "We ended up putting in helical piers, inserting them pile by pile. The store is pretty much a new steel building within an old shell."

By contrast with the theater, the store's 30,000-sq.ft. interior, which now serves as MSU's conference center, had retained little historic fabric. "The sales floors had been modernized every 15 years, there was nothing worth saving," says Roger Pryor, the principal in charge at Pryor & Morrow. His firm did manage to maintain some sense of Victorian graciousness: meeting rooms and corridors have tall arched windows, scrollwork carpets, fluted piers, and milky hemispherical ceiling fixtures that resemble the opera house's original gas lights.

The gutting of the store meanwhile allowed Martinez & Johnson some room to expand the theater's amenities and bring it up to code. Mechanical equipment, ADA-compliant restrooms, emergency exits, elevators and stage wing spaces occupy former store floors. In the opera house, Martinez & Johnson invisibly inserted a sound-insulating concrete-box stage and ran HVAC under the heart-pine raked floors. American Seating Inc. of Grand Rapids, MI, supplied new seats; they are slightly wider than their ancestors, with stock Victorian end standards.

Peavey Electronics, a globally renowned manufacturer based in Meridian, devised a custom speaker system for the house. The existing acoustics, Johnson says, required little adjusting: "There are almost no squared-off corners. That was one of the McElfatricks' brilliant innovations. Their theaters have a wonderful, natural globe of sound."

EverGreene's surface treatments absorb what little reverb occurs at the opera house. The company replicated the cast-iron railings in lightweight GFRP (sections of the originals had turned up in a Meridian homeowner's yard, adapted into picket fencing). EverGreene reproduced papier-mâché details in more durable resin, molded silicone into simulated Ana-glypta wallcoverings and turned minute scraps of found wallpaper into ready-to-paste rolls of digital prints.

The painting studio also hand-flocked some swaths of cupid-and-urn-pattern papers. How do you revive the long-lost art of flocking? "You spread adhesive on the paper wherever you want the flocking to stick," Greene patiently explains. "You dust on wool flecks, and then you pound the underside of the paper with eggbeaters until all the wool hairs stand up straight."

But for all the project's meticulous historical accuracy, he adds, "we didn't put back everything exactly as it had been at any particular moment in time. We preserved a sense of evolution, all the layers of the onion. There's an alchemy to the process. We wanted to maintain that intangible quality of a sense of place." TB

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