This morning the City of St. Paul announced their plans to renovate and reopen the historic Palace Theatre on West 7th Place as a music venue, with additional help from rock club First Avenue and concert promoter JAM Productions.
Built in 1916, the Palace has sat empty and unused since 1984, when it was used as a temporary home for Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion while the nearby Fitzgerald Theater underwent remodeling. Before that it was a popular movie theater known as the RKO Orpheum, and in its earliest days it was a vaudeville theater where Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and George Burns all performed.
The city estimates that renovations—which they classified as an act of stabilization, not historical restoration—will cost $12 million. They plan to ask the state of Minnesota to finance half that amount, and will request that $6 million in funding this legislative session. The rest will come from philanthropic gifts and a loan that will be paid back by the venue’s operations.
The majority of the theater’s seats will be removed, creating a general-admission main floor and balcony mezzanine. With a 3,000-person capacity, the Palace fills an elusive hole in the Twin Cities live concert circuit, offering a larger room for touring acts than Minneapolis’s Orpheum and State Theatres (which hold 2,579 and 2,181, respectively). The only other metro venues in that range are Maplewood’s Myth Nightclub, which holds 3,500; the Northrop Auditorium, which is currently closed for renovations; and downtown St. Paul’s cavernous Roy Wilkins Auditorium, which holds 5,000.
First Avenue’s owner Dayna Frank and general manager Nate Kranz were both in attendance at today’s press conference, as was JAM Productions co-founder Jerry Mickelson, who got his start producing concerts in St. Paul. The City of St. Paul’s arts and cultural director, Joe Spencer, said that the city is in talks with both companies to help them run the theater, while both Frank and Mickelson stressed that they feel a venue the size of the Palace will fill a void in the Twin Cities concert business.
“This is the moment,” St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said this morning. “The fact of the matter is, arts are not just about having a nice night out. It’s about economic development. Mayors from across the country are understanding the connection. Places like Seattle, Austin, New York—the draw of a cultural scene doesn’t just bring in artists, it brings in people that want to work there, it helps our companies to recruit, it brings in new entrepreneurs. Great communities have great artists, and I think St. Paul has known that for a while.”
Mayor Coleman said that he believes the Palace Theatre will help to revitalize downtown St. Paul, describing it many times as “the missing link” in a downtown area that also includes cultural gathering spaces like the Fitzgerald and Ordway Theaters, the Xcel Energy Center, and Mears Park. It’s also in a prime location for the new light-rail line, which will stop just one block from the Palace when it begins operating in 2014.
“Start to think about what that plaza out in front can become,” Mayor Coleman said. “Where we have the Artists’ Quarter—which, by the way, will stay open, I don’t care what you read in the papers. We’re going to make sure the Artists’ Quarter stays open. If you look at the Park Square Theater, if you look at what’s happening at the Ordway, what’s happening in Lowertown and Mears Park, all of a sudden we have a cultural district out here that will rival any cultural district in the entire country.”
The mayor insisted that if funding for the Palace Theatre is approved, renovations could be completed quickly. He said the goal is to have the venue up and running in time for the building’s 100th anniversary in 2016.
More of Nate Ryan’s photos are below, along with archival photos of the Palace Theatre/RKO Orpheum Theater from the Minnesota Historical Society.