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Rochester's charming Chateau Theatre learns its fate Monday -- maybe

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The Chateau Theatre in Rochester, Minn. is pictured in 1938.
The Chateau Theatre in Rochester, Minn., is pictured in 1938. The Rochester City Council will choose one of three proposals to operate the long-closed, city-owned theater.
Courtesy of History Center of Olmsted County

In the middle of downtown Rochester is an architectural relic that literally radiates charm. The glittering red and yellow suns that adorn the Chateau Theatre's art deco marquee stand in stark contrast to the ascetic towers of the Mayo Clinic's campus.

The theater's interior, which is decorated like the courtyard of a French chateau, sparkles, too: Stars freckle the dark blue ceiling.

With so much character and history, the Chateau has a large group of loyal fans, and that includes City Council Member Shaun Palmer.

"I did see Mary Poppins there as a kid," he said. "I heard [former] Mayor [Ardell] Brede say he would chain himself to the door if it was going to get torn down. And I agree — I'd chain myself to the door," Palmer said.

Despite the charm, the theater has been barely used for several years.

Palmer will be among the council members weighing three proposals Monday that would temporarily open the space to the public while the city develops plans for its future. It's a pivotal move for the ornate building's future, which some residents say has been dormant too long.

Palmer is hardly the only person in Rochester with a deep affection for a building that first opened as a vaudeville house in 1927 and went through reinventions as a movie theater and then a Barnes and Noble bookstore.

Locals are so passionate about the theater that a group formed in the late 1970s to prevent it from being torn down, and the building secured a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city bought the property in 2016 after the Barnes and Noble closed, but officials are still unsure what to do with it.

Rochester will buy the Chateau Theatre.
Rochester and Mayo Clinic officials gathered in March 2015 to announce the city's plan to buy the historic Chateau Theatre in downtown Rochester for $6 million, including a $500,000 contribution from Mayo Clinic.
Elizabeth Baier | MPR News 2015

The theater does have an important backer. The massive Destination Medical Center economic development initiative has made it a focal point in plans to revitalize the center of Rochester.

"Historically, it's been important to the city," said Patrick Seeb, director of economic development and place-making for the DMC. "It's a very beautiful building, both the exterior and the interior. And it's largely intact, which is unusual for historic theaters," he said.

Seeb was part of a planning task force convened right after the city acquired the building. The panel came up with a $23 million plan to bring the building back to life as a venue for performing arts and events.

But the council has yet to vote on that plan. Buildings on three sides of the theater are in various states of change, and each could affect the theater's renovation. So, city officials are waiting to see how they turn out. Separately, Peace Plaza, in front of the theater, will under go a major renovation as soon as next year. Meanwhile, the city's delay has made time for an array of new event and performance spaces to open nearby, creating competition for the Chateau.

In his antique shop downtown, former task force member John Kruesel said he's disappointed the city didn't move quickly on the initial plan he helped create.

Kruesel said reviving the theater would restore some personality to what he said can feel like a soulless city — a problem that all the new construction isn't helping.

"Restore the Chateau Theatre, and they will come," he said. "And the people that will come will be of all colors, all sizes, all definitions. And that is what will bind us together. It's not new glitter and sparkly chrome and glass. That just depersonalizes a city."

Kruesel said he's not wild about any of the three interim plans the council is weighing. He said each would prevent the Chateau from being a true community asset open to all comers.

Chateau Theatre
The Chateau Theatre in Rochester, Minn., in its early days.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

One plan would bring traveling exhibits to the venue. A second would use it for movies and as a performance space for an array of local artists. The third would use it largely for concerts and private events like weddings.

Council Member Shaun Palmer said he'd never want to see the Chateau torn down. But he points out the city already subsidizes three other arts venues in town. He thinks maybe the Chateau should go on the block.

"We could sell it and put a covenant on it that said, 'Hey, you have to maintain it, you can't let the roof go, and let it deteriorate,'" he said.

But tying a buyer's hands like that could be a tough sell, and other council members worry the city would take a loss on the sale.

In any case, City Council President Randy Staver predicts the council will vote in favor of whatever plan the city staff recommends. But he adds it's also possible the council could reject all three — which would delay the Chateau's revival even longer.