The Civic Theatre (510 O'Keefe Ave., 504-272-0865; www.civicnola.com) makes a nostalgic promise via a sign near its new entrance on O'Keefe Avenue. The sign, which says "air-conditioned," serves as a reminder of the theater's storied past and multiple reincarnations. Its recent redesign, unveiled in March 2013, has rejuvenated the historic venue.
"The Civic is the oldest theater still standing in New Orleans and was originally designed by Sam Stone," developer Bryan Bailey says. "Built in 1906, as one of the first Shubert theaters outside New York City, it was in the center of New Orleans' theatre district."
The building has had different names and identities during its long lifespan. It has been home to raucous vaudeville shows as well as classic plays and was even transformed into a disco-theque in the late 1970s. After the last days of disco, the theater's doors remained closed for nearly 30 years, until Bailey and fellow developer Brian Gibbs partnered with multimedia production company Solomon Group to bring back audiences.
"[Solomon Group] was instrumental in opening the doors and breathing new life into the venue," project manager Laura Dore says. "It took about two years to complete the restoration, as the entire building had to be gutted."
"Throughout the renovation process, the goal was to create the country's first modern historic theater, where every performance and experience is as meticulously designed as the venue itself," Bailey says.
While the interior and roof were refurbished, special attention was paid to preserving the details of the building's architectural fingerprint. "They had to go through the proper channels to make the place historically and structurally sound," Dore says.
This included the delicate process of restoring the original Beaux Arts plaster work. "Artisans were brought in from across the country to mold and rebuild the detailed pieces," Bailey says. Wrapped around the theater's balconies and stage frame, the revitalized plaster now resembles rosette trim on a white frosted cake. In addition to remediating major structural issues, the team paid homage to the building's past in the details — for example, salvaged cypress was used to create tables for the green room.
The Civic now hosts concerts, weddings, corporate events and private parties. Functioning as a blank canvas, the space has a system of portable panels which can accommodate customized layouts. "The floor is mobile and can create seating for 674 or standing room for approximately 1,100 guests," says promoter Carmen Negrelli. In addition, the theatre is newly outfitted with a sophisticated lighting system, Bailey says.
The Civic Theatre also features new bars on each of its three floors, serving cocktails created for the venue by mixologist Neal Bodenheimer. When guests catch upcoming performances by Neko Case (Monday, Jan. 27) and Neutral Milk Hotel (Feb. 20 and 21), they "never have to go too far to get a fantastic drink," Negrelli says.