by CHRIS ROGERS
Some council members have expressed doubts about whether the city should continue fixing up the building or continue owning it at all, but on Monday, the Winona City Council and members of the public will get a tour of the $1.8-million renovation project already underway at the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre.
Last week, tradesmen were carefully installing new flooring in the gallery, massive new tiered seating systems stood halfway assembled, and the Masonic Temple’s old stage electronic control board — Dr. Frankenstein-style switches and all — was leaned up against the wall — a piece of history salvaged as the theater undergoes a major upgrade.
The city is halfway into a series of projects aimed at making the temple a premier performance and events venue in the heart of downtown. After past projects to replace the temple’s leaky roof and shore up its stage’s unstable rigging system, this year’s renovation is the city’s most expensive single project at the Masonic Temple to-date, and it is the first one in recent history that will make serious improvements to the performance space. “This project prepares the auditorium space and the stage. It prepares it for performances,” Winona Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl explained.
The project includes a brand-new rigging system, with space for 10 — maybe 13 — of the temple’s historic, hand-painted theatrical backdrops as well as modern drops, scrims, and acoustic shells. As of last week, construction crews had removed the old rigging and prepared the ceiling to support the installation of new rigging. The new rigging system will be able — more or less — to accommodate modern theater, film, and music performances. Beyond the front of the stage, crews had partly assembled a new, retractable seating system. The system includes a series of tiered risers that can slide out and be covered with stacking chairs to create quasi-stadium seating for a play. Alternatively, the risers can be collapsed in on each other — like bleachers at a high school gymnasium — to make room for a dance floor or meeting tables. “I like this component to the project because of the flexibility it provides us — the fact that they fold up and can be moved to the north side of the room or fold and can be moved to the east side of the room and leave a flat floor,” Ubl said of the risers and chairs. “The flexibility in that building — I think it’ll prove to be beneficial for the multipurpose events we plan in that space.” Ubl stated that the seating capacity would be in “the mid-200 range.”
Outside the gallery, contractors were working on remodeling the Masonic Temple’s restrooms to make them handicap-accessible and more attractive. The building’s entrances and exits will get mandatory upgrades, as well, to meet building codes, Ubl explained.
City officials may not have enough money in the project budget to do everything they originally hoped. Ubl would really like to buy new chairs to go with the new seating system, as well as new stage lighting and sound equipment. Those items are not in the project budget, but like most construction projects the budget also includes a pot of contingency funds meant to cover the cost overruns that often occur in construction. If the city gets lucky and the project finishes more or less on-budget, those contingency funds could be used to purchase new chairs or maybe even new lighting and sound equipment, Ubl stated. “If the contingency is used in the construction phase and there aren’t dollars for the lighting, seats, and sounds, we’ll have to look at other funding sources and bring a proposal back to council for those features,” he explained. “But that said, at the end of this construction phase we feel the space is usable.”
The current renovation is already taking longer than originally planned. It was supposed to wrap up in August, but there was a change in the flooring that the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office had to review and other small changes that delayed the project, Ubl explained. There is currently no set date for the project’s completion, he continued. “We would like the project to be done yet this fall primarily due to the restoration of the drops,” Ubl said. Once the renovation is finished, the city has hired — with private funds and the proceeds from the sale of other drops — a contractor to restore the city’s 13 remaining historic drops, whose intricate, hand-painted designs have been damaged by wear and water. “We have a contract or an agreement with the restorer to begin that process in late fall or early winter — before the end of the year,” Ubl stated. The renovation needs to be done in time for the restorer to do her work.
This project is not the last one on the city’s wish list for the Masonic Temple. City officials recently applied for a state grant for funding to repair the exterior masonry, and they have currently pencilled in a $770,000-$1,300,000 project to replace the building’s heating system and add air conditioning for the first time in 2020. “An upgrade to the HVAC system in the building would allow us to operate the building year-round,” Ubl explained. After that, replacing the building’s windows and making various aesthetic renovations to the auditorium and side rooms would be next on the to-do list, he added.
The Winona City Council will meet on Monday at 5:30 p.m. at the Masonic Temple’s south entrance to tour the renovation project. The space could be cramped, but the tour is open to the public.