The Grandel Theatre: A Space To Call Home
Written By Alan Brainerd
Photos Provided By The Grandel Theatre
Residents and visitors to St. Louis are fortunate on so many levels. Our city offers the best of the best in so many categories; amazing architecture, medical facilities, top rated zoo, museums and parks, an array of world class eateries and probably best of all, and most important to many, the arts. The artistic experience would be dramatically less in any city without the commitment financially and personally by those who are passionate about the arts. The vision of Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, and their formation of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation (KAF), have made an imprint on our community that will no doubt last for generations to come.
Last year the KAF expanded their commitment to the Grand Center Arts District, which is home to more than 45 cultural institutions, with the purchase of the Grandel Theatre. This most incredible and historic Romanesque Revival limestone structure designed by local architect Lewis Frederick Rice in 1884, was first home to the First Congregational Church. In 1914, the Union Methodist Church purchased the building and occupied the space until 1952. Fast forward to 1989 when the Grand Center Organization purchased the much dilapidated and woefully neglected building with a new purpose and vision which included a multimillion dollar renovation to reinvent the space, which included a 450 seat theater and banquet facility. This was a new concept and bit of a dicey destination for St. Louis theater goers in the 1980’s as our city had fallen on some rather tough times and getting people back into the city would take great, some say monumental efforts. With determination, this re-imagined venue over time experienced much success during this period, all part of the exciting early rebirth of mid-town and the Grand Center. The Black Repertory Company and St. Louis Shakespeare utilized the main stage of the building until 2013 when the building was sold again. In 2016 the purchase by the KAF secured the future of this historic gem and saved it from what could have been the fate of a wrecking ball.
The building was in obvious need of repair and updating to bring it in line with the quality of both performance and educational opportunities that they wanted to offer. The local award winning architectural firm SPACE Architecture + Design located in the Grove area was chosen to design and complete the remodel designs for the lobby, theater, common areas, the Dark Room, The Grandel Gallery, and the patio that overlooks the Arts Academy Plaza.
“The building itself provided plenty of inspiration. The architecture, the leaded-glass windows, and the small details in the space–in particular the motif on the ends of the seats in the theater –gave us plenty of direction for the revitalization of the space,” says Tom Niemeier of SPACE. He adds, “We did our best to enhance the theater with custom carpet that was color-matched to the existing seats, and a few pops of color with complimentary wall covering.”
“[Executive director of KAF] Chris Hansen wanted different types of seating, so we removed some traditional theater seats and replaced them with high channel-back curved booths in a mustard color that complemented the red,” adds Niemeier. “The yellow specifically was inspired by the rays of sunshine motif at the ends of the seat rows. The large crystal feature lights on the top floor of the theater reflect that theme as well.”
In the Dark Room (the restaurant/lounge/bar with a small performance stage) the deeply coffered ceilings stayed, but LED lighting was added behind a black steel plate at the top of the coffer, creating the ability to change colors in the room to suit the mood. The steel was used on the small stage, and on select walls and columns to provide a surface on which the art exhibits are displayed with magnets. The burl bar top added some warmth to the space. The fusion of materials of wood and steel juxtaposed the history of the building with the modern aesthetic of the future.
The line-up of artistic companies to utilize the space ensures diversity both in talent offered and the audiences that will be attracted to this venue. Some resident companies include Ashleyliane Dance Company, Big Muddy Dance Company, Dance St. Louis, Harvey Lockhart’s ‘H.E.A.L’ Center for the Arts, Korlovsky & Company Dance, Metro Theatre Company, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, St. Louis Ballet, and the St. Louis University Performing Arts Department.
Ron James of Metro Theatre, now in its 45th season, was particularly exuberant at the possibility of being included at The Grandel. “When the Kranzberg Arts Foundation hinted that there was a possibility that they might rejuvenate and reopen the Grandel Theatre and would be looking for resident companies to sign on, Metro Theatre Company answered with a resounding yes. A permanent performance space in the heart of Grand Center will allow us to expand our season, reach new audiences and take on technical and production challenges we never could before.”
Gen Horiuchi, the artistic director for the Saint Louis Ballet Company, says, “As the professional ballet company of Saint Louis, we want to be part of the renewal and energy of that district. The Grandel has had a wonderful re-birth as a center for all types of arts organizations.”
Horiuchi is a winner of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland and a former principal dancer under George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. He explains, “Saint Louis Ballet is known for its classical presentations on the very large Touhill stage. But the company also performs work by today's top choreographers and those contemporary ballets are well suited for smaller stages and more intimate venues. The sight lines and size of the Grandel are ideal for the presentation of some of Saint Louis Ballet's most interesting new work. We look forward to the relaxed atmosphere that theater exudes and the opportunity to have audience members mingle with dancers and choreographers following the performances in the lobby lounge.”
Visual arts will also surround the visitors to this venue. The Grandel will host five art exhibits annually as well as the photo galleries in the Dark Room, which relocated from their space around the corner. The art of food is also an important part of the whole. Dinner and lunch menus provide an array of different tastes for the varied pallets of the guests. The menu has expanded from the Mediterranean fare to include more options including vegan.
The small performance stage in the Dark Room offers a free music experience that includes the talents of such artists as Ptah Williams, Harvey Lockhart & The Collective, Ben Reece and The Unity Quartet just to name a few. This is also a plus for theater patrons who can enjoy live music before and after the show.
It’s clear the Kranzberg Arts Foundation has succeeded yet again in its mission: “To providing local, emerging artists and community arts organizations the resources and infrastructure necessary for the arts to thrive in St. Louis-because we believe artists and the cultural communities they build represent the heart and soul of our city. Through the development of performing arts venues, visual arts galleries, free music programs, and work spaces for nonprofit arts organizations, the foundation nurtures the growth of artists, while working with emerging and leading arts institutions to engage with St. Louis’ greater community in ways that are relevant, inclusive, and inspiring.”
The view from onstage at The Grandel Theatre, photo by Gina Garfos
The Grandel Theatre, photo by Brandon Sloan
The Dark Room, photo by Brandon Sloan