CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you’re trying to find the front of Charlotte’s historic Carolina Theatre, look in the basement.
That’s where the facade’s windows, arches and carved ornaments have been stored since the late 1980s, when the city dismantled it, numbered the pieces and stacked them under the stage.
Such forethought is one of many reasons city officials got excited during a series of tours at the long-abandoned piece of city property.
The theater at 230 N. Tryon St. is the subject of two different proposals that promise to renovate the theater and add office space. One proposal would make it a civic meeting site, another would make it a performance venue. Neither suitor is asking for city money – or offering to pay more than $1 for the site – but it has become clear in recent weeks that some City Council members are suddenly protective of the 85-year-old building’s future.
A half-dozen council members toured the site last week, to see what remains of the 36,304-square-foot interior. All left impressed.
“We are giving somebody a jewel,” said councilman David Howard, after exiting the building with councilman James Mitchell. “You want to make sure you give it to the right person.”
“Somebody who’ll get it right,” Mitchell added. “This building is a history lesson and we need to pass that lesson on.”
The biggest surprise?
“It’s still amazing,” Mitchell said.
What’s so amazing?
When the Carolina Theatre was completed in 1927, it was among the grandest public halls in Charlotte, with wrought-iron chandeliers, reproductions of priceless Cluny weavings, Moorish tiled floors and a Spanish cathedral window.
It was for a time the flagship of Charlotte entertainment, hosting celebrities like Tom Mix, Ethel Barrymore, Bob Hope, Guy Lombardo and Elvis Presley.
But Charlotte kept growing, the suburbs flourished and crowds went elsewhere.
The doors have been locked for 34 years now.
What council members discovered during tours last week is that, while much has been lost, much also remains in the building.
At first glance, the interior resembles an excavated ancient theater, complete with gaping doors to nowhere, and patches of muddy brown paint peeling from its towering walls.
The original wooden seats are long gone. The floors are bare concrete, the iron chandeliers removed, and the ornate balconies that once protruded from either side of the stage “chopped off,” because they blocked the screen when the site became a movie house.
Yet those seem but minor details when taking in the cavernous theater as a whole.
A grand arch of cast plaster trim still soars over the stage. A massive balcony continues to hang like a cliff over the main floor, and a well-preserved coffered ceiling hovers above everything.
Large landscape murals are grimy but discernable. Decorative medallions of profiled faces hold tight to the walls, and terracotta trim clings to the corners.
Then there are the mysteriously effective acoustics, which makes sounds wrap around visitors like a warm blanket.
It opened as the city’s first air-conditioned building. In ’32, it hosted the Charlotte’s Symphony’s debut performance. And in ’61, it underwent major renovation to become the Carolinas home of Cinerama, the wide-screen technology of the day.
All that came to an end on Nov. 27, 1978, after a showing of “The Fist,” starring Bruce Lee.
Patrons exited for good, transients moved in, and a long series of potential reuses for the building came and went. The city took over the site in 1986.
That the Carolina Theatre will reopen is now a sure thing. The city’s Economic Development Committee may decide as early as mid November which of the two options is best, but a City Council vote on that recommendation might not come until January, due to the holidays.
Among the key points still to be settled: A clear definition and standards of what the city considers a “proper” renovation of the theater. That’s necessary, officials say, so there will be no debate over unmet expectations. Neither of the redevelopment plans promises to do a textbook historic restoration, because of the tremendous expense involved.
Foundation for the Carolinas wants to renovate the theater for civic meetings and put an office building in front for a mix of nonprofits and private companies. CMP Carolina Theatre LLC, which had a purchase agreement on the site between 2006 and 2011, says it will renovate the theater for public entertainment and put a building in front with commercial customers in mind.
City staff say it’s possible for either of the developers to re-create something close to the original appearance by using less expensive material now on the market. Council member Patsy Kinsey believes the developer with the best renovation plan will get the council’s support. This includes taking the pieces of the old facade and putting them back in place.
“I’d lobby for (the approach) to be the deal breaker,” said Kinsey, who has long pushed for preservation of the theater. “Can we take it back to what it looked like when it was built? Maybe not. The important thing is that you keep it as close to the original look and feel as possible.”