The old Palace Theatre in downtown St Paul may return to its roots as a popular music venue.
The city of St Paul today announced today a $12 million plan to turn the abandoned downtown theater into a live music venue. The nearly 100-year-old Palace Theatre is beaten up, but city officials say it's structurally sound, and could fill a void as a much-needed mid-sized performance space for local and national acts.
Opened as a vaudeville house on the 7th Street Mall 1916, the Palace later became a movie theater before being shuttered about 20 years ago. Although popular music has changed, renovating the building has long been a dream of Mayor Chris Coleman, who describes himself as a music lover.
As he stood in the foyer of the Palace today, Coleman, recalled how much he enjoyed recently going to First Avenue in Minneapolis to see Neko Case - a show he said would been perfect for downtown St. Paul. "How much better would that concert have been here?" Coleman asked. "It would have been so much easier for me to get there."
Coleman makes the case that downtown St. Paul and indeed the entire Twin Cities metro area needs the Palace to re-open.
"Great communities have great arts, and I think St. Paul has done it very well," Coleman said.
The one thing that is missing, he said, is a downtown St. Paul venue that can host bands that are too big an attraction for the Amsterdam Bar, but not big enough for the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. That's where the Palace comes in.
City officials envision a renovated space that would hold audiences orf up to 3,000. To create it, they would remove all the seats on the ground floor, and many of those on the mezzanine level.
But a significant cleanup would first have to happen at the Palace, which is showing its age. Paint and plaster peel off the walls. The building reeks of mildew and many of the art deco lights hang awkward and dark overhead.
However city officials see potential here. Beneath the decay on the surface the building is structurally sound, and just needs some TLC, said Joe Spencer, St. Paul's director of arts and culture.
"It has been unheated and uncooled for so long that the architects have said that the first thing we'll do is put in heating and cooling and bring the building up to temperature and let it rest for six to nine months so the plaster stabilizes," he said.
Spencer, who is spearheading the project, said this is about the fifth time he has tried to put together a package to revitalize the Palace.
Although studies have shown a full-blown restoration to bring restore the building as a theater does not make economic sense, he believes there is a need for a space of its size with built-in flexibility.
"We can bring tables and chairs out; we can have events in here," Spencer said. "And we can clear the floor and pack it to the rafters and have a great show, a great rock show as well."
Several other Twin Cities venues which might be seen as natural competitors to a renovated Palace support the idea. Dayna Frank, executive vice president of First Avenue in Minneapolis, said it would be good for everyone.
"I think it will enhance the entire Twin Cities music scene," she said. "Even the smaller clubs, because having a place like this to build bands into will make more people excited about the market and just enrich our entire scene."
City officials also predict that the Palace could bring some energy to a part of downtown with a handful of vacant buildings. They say it could also be an attractive element for whatever enterprise ends up in the old Macy's space just yards away.
To fund the renovation, the city will seek $6 million in state bonding funds during the next Legislative session. The other half of the budget would come from loans to be repaid later.
State Rep. Alice Hausman, chair of the House Capital Investment Committee, supports the plan.
Although it's always a hard sell for any project at the Capitol, she argues that people need to remember how the center cities are the state's economic engine.
"Keeping this urban core healthy is important," said Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. People used to go to cities to shop; now they go to be entertained."