CLEARWATER — Despite some concerns about historical accuracy, city leaders are giving a unanimous thumbs-up to the upcoming renovation of the 91-year-old Capitol Theatre.
Now Ruth Eckerd Hall, which operates the city-owned theater in downtown Clearwater, has the go-ahead to renovate the theater the way it wants. That will mean merging the theater's outer facade with that of a smaller, 98-year-old building next door, making the theater look significantly bigger.
To clear the way for that work to start, the Clearwater City Council voted Thursday night to remove the "historic" designations that the city placed on the Capitol Theatre and its neighboring building three years ago. The city had officially labeled the adjoining buildings "historic" in an unsuccessful effort to win federal grants for their refurbishment.
The structure next door to the theater is called the Clearwater Evening Sun building or the Pat Lokey building. Over the next year, the 5,600-square-foot building will be merged with the Capitol to create more seating, lobby space, restrooms and dressing rooms.
Built in 1914, the Evening Sun building's exterior was originally brick masonry. Clearwater's planning officials recommended against letting Ruth Eckerd combine the two buildings' facades, saying giving both exteriors the same stuccoed look would "give a false historical representation."
However, the council members were not swayed. They don't want to delay the theater's $7 million renovation, scheduled to begin by Dec. 1. They like the fact that the work will restore the Capitol Theatre's original Mediterranean Revival look from 1921.
The council's view was backed by Mike Sanders, president of the Clearwater Historical Society. He supports Ruth Eckerd's plans for the two downtown buildings.
In a letter to the city, Sanders said the Evening Sun building was originally an unremarkable brick structure with no notable architectural features and that it can never be restored to its original facade.
"I think we have a unique situation here where we can create a more historic character on Cleveland Street by going back to the original design of the theater," said City Council member Bill Jonson, who had sought out Sanders' advice.
The only person to speak against the theater project Thursday night was conservative activist Joe Paige, who gave the Council a typical blistering critique.
"They're trying to de-list the property," he said of the historic designation. "A private homeowner or property owner, what kind of hoops would he have to jump through to do this?"
He noted that the city will have spent $10 million overall to buy, renovate and expand the Capitol Theatre. "How much longer are we going to subsidize downtown before we see a return on these investments?" Paige said.
The Capitol Theatre's renovation plans to be finished by October 2013. Its seating will grow from 485 to nearly 750. Its facade will be redone in soft beige, with a green-tile trim and vintage signs. The facade design will wrap around the corner of Cleveland Street and further south down Osceola Avenue.
A one-story building at 409 Cleveland St., on the other side of the Capitol, will be torn down and replaced with a two-story building. Its facade also will blend into the Capitol's.
For decades a cinema and playhouse, the theater has seen record-breaking growth under Ruth Eckerd Hall's management, with more than 100 events a year, including sold-out shows.
Ruth Eckerd CEO Zev Buffman told the City Council that the Capitol has become an anchor for a downtown revival.
"But an anchor couldn't come in unless you trusted us, Ruth Eckerd Hall, to take the building as is," he said. "And to show that people will venture and come downtown in very large numbers to see events like they have never done — or haven't done in many, many years."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.