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On the Road Again

Project: The Gillioz Theatre, Springfield, MO

Architect: Butler Rosenbury & Partners, Inc., Springfield, MO; Craig Hacker, project manager

Contractors: DeWitt and Associates, Spring-field, MO

By Lynne Lavelle

In 1926, the Woodruff Building on St. Louis Street in Springfield, MO, played host to a meeting between highway officials of Missouri and Oklahoma who were trying to decide on the official number for a new two-lane highway. The new road would stretch from Chicago, IL, through eight states and 2,400 miles to Santa Monica, CA, and cover more than ten counties in the state of Missouri, including Greene County and downtown Springfield. It was here that Route 66 was officially named in a telegram to Washington, DC; but while Springfield would be known as the "Birthplace of Route 66," it was not the only legend to take root on that stretch of the highway that year. Just next door to the Woodruff Building, the opening of the Gillioz Theatre was a watershed for cinema and architecture. After a period of decline, it is back in business.

Built by road and bridge contractor M.E. Gillioz of Monett, MO, the 19,000-sq. ft. Gillioz Theatre Beautiful opened to massive crowds on October 11, 1926. Over the next half-century, it hosted a number of premieres, including the Ronald Reagan movies Swing Your Lady, The Winning Team and She's Working Her Way Through College, as well as MGM's first all-talking musical feature, The Broadway Melody. The Gillioz' bridge-like construction was highly unusual; both the steel framing for the roof and the balcony use trusses and girders with riveted and bolted connections, much like those found on historic truss bridges. But despite its resilience, the theater gradually fell into disrepair in the late '70s as customers deserted the downtown area for suburbs and malls, and, in 1979, it was forced to close its doors.

The building was purchased by local businessman Jim D. Morris in 1987 and later deeded to the Springfield Landmarks Preservation Trust (SPLT), a non-profit organization formed to pioneer its restoration. The Gillioz' strength was its saving grace – though it was originally built for $300,000, the projected $2-million restoration costs were not more than the cost of demolition. So, with support from private, public and political entities within the Springfield community, the trust undertook a 16-year restoration project in 1990 to make the Gillioz "beautiful" again.

Three years into the fundraising process, the SPLT enlisted local firm Butler Rosenbury & Partners to carry out the restoration. Shortly after, the trust purchased the adjacent 27,000-sq.ft. Netters Building, which, together with the Gillioz, would form the $8.5-million Ronald and Nancy Reagan Center. When project manager Craig Hacker began working on the restoration in 1993, it was impossible to envision its scope, or its timetable. "We didn't know that it would take as long as it did," says Hacker. "But it was a very enjoyable process. A lot of fundraising had to happen, and after 9/11, the donations slowed down and that put things on hold for a while. The fundraising was ongoing until the end."

The Gillioz was still structurally solid, but roof failure and moisture damage had left the plaster and moldings in disrepair. In addition, much of the furniture and fixtures had been lost. To upgrade the theater to meet the programmatic needs of a 21st-century performance space was a challenge in itself, but to do so in a non-invasive way that wouldn't change or damage the building's historic character required meticulous planning.

Immediately after acquiring the Gillioz, the SPLT replaced the roof to prevent any further damage to the building. There were no existing drawings of the theater, so Hacker had to field verify the building and create the base documents that would be used throughout the renovation. "We had some photographs from the press release when the theater first opened, and some opening night photographs," says Hacker. "But as far as architectural or structural drawings of the theater, there was nothing."

Before any equipment could be moved in, or the plaster repaired, minimal HVAC was installed to prevent further plaster damage. "The hardest thing on a building is for it to be unoccupied and unused," says Hacker. "In the swing seasons – spring and fall – when the interior of the building would sweat, the lack of heat regulation deteriorated the building and the plaster even further and led to severe disrepair."

Surprisingly, the theater's original system was not behind the times. "From an HVAC standpoint, the system is still state-of-the-art today," says Hacker. "The conditioned air is dropped from the ceiling at a high volume but at a very low velocity, and the returns are in the floor under the seats. New HVAC was provided for the house, foyer and lobby spaces, and also in the Morris Building." A new electrical substation in the basement of the Gillioz allowed for relatively easy power upgrades to support the new sound and lighting, which included a dimmer system for the stage, house and lobby spaces, and new lighting, sound and stage rigging in the performance spaces. The light fixtures themselves were taken down, completely refurbished and rewired. And where fixtures were missing, St. Louis Antique Lighting Company of St. Louis, MO, manufactured exact reproductions to complete each set.

After more than a decade of neglect, the plasterwork throughout the theater was severely damaged. Several areas of the ceiling in the house had fallen, as well as the ceiling beneath the balcony, in the lower lobby and in the upper foyer. The firm enlisted Conrad Schmitt Studios (CSS) of New Berlin, WI, to undertake a plaster and paint restoration study. Chicago-based Luczak Brothers was contracted by CSS to replace the steel framing and lath, and rebuild the walls and ceilings.

Missing plaster pieces were re-fabricated by making molds from original sections, and additional molds were created from original plaster trim found under the balcony. Once the walls and embellishments had cured, CSS repainted them, stripping down layers of paint and gold leaf to determine the original colors. Paint and plaster renovations were both based on the original building, as it was in 1926, while the lighting and seating were based upon a later renovation, ca. 1940. The original seats from this era were rehabilitated and updated.

Working with the state of Missouri's Historic Preservation Office, openings were made on the Gillioz' first and second floors to connect the theater with the three-story Netters Building (renamed the James D. Morris Arts Building), which contains the theater's new elevators and restrooms. Originally, the trust had planned to build an addition for this purpose in an alley adjacent to the theater, but reconsidered due to high construction bids and the timely sale of the Netters Building.

"They purchased the building for less than the addition was going to cost," says Hacker. "That's when we developed a program whereby the service space would be located in the adjacent building, so we have a core space and then a space that has all the supporting facilities for the theater. We wanted this to be an engaging atmosphere that worked as an extension of the theater – but the theater is still the crown jewel."

The Morris Building contains a lounge, plus banqueting and catering facilities, and the top floor will be used by a local college. Its interior elements and lighting link the entire building to the Gillioz. "We used elements and colors in the Morris Building that played off some linear elements within the theater," explains Hacker. "The wood paneling in the Morris Building is different from that in the Gillioz, but we wanted the warmth of the wood. What is absolutely consistent is the lighting; that quality doesn't change as you move between one and the other."

The Gillioz reopened for business on October 13, 2006, with a two-week 80th-anniversary celebration. It seats 1,100 people for live performances, concerts, movies, exhibits, theatrical performances, conventions and festivals, and fits a niche in Springfield between the 600-seat Landers Theater and the 2,200-seat Performing Arts Theater. For the community, the return of the Gillioz was like going back in time. Many who attended the reopening were able to recall its original opening night, and fittingly, a time capsule has been placed underneath the lobby for future Springfield generations. "We worked with a lot of local people, who most definitely had affection for the building," says Hacker. "It was definitely one of the most satisfying projects I've ever worked on, one where everybody, the SPLT, the design team, general contractor and subcontractors worked together to find the best solution. The timeline was a challenge, but the challenge was part of the fun." TB

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