ONARCHITECTURE- Rock opera: Construction begins on the Jefferson

"It won't be quite as ornate as the Paramount," says Gate Pratt, project architect for the Jefferson Theater renovation, "but it will have a simple elegance, already contained in the original design."

More than two years after music mogul Coran Capshaw bought the Jefferson Theater, major construction on the future music venue is finally scheduled to begin next week.

"We're on the verge of full-bore construction," says project manager Kirby Hutto, giving August 25 as the date Martin Horn Inc. will set to work on the $5 million restoration project. Hutto also names September 1, 2009, as the opening date for the venue, boldly adding, "That date is fixed in stone."

Apparently, Capshaw's plans for the theater have been anything but "fixed in stone" for the few years since he bought the building from Hook editor Hawes Spencer, who ran it as a second-run movie theater for 14 years. Putting a positive spin on the time it's taken to come up with a working design, Hutto says, "We've taken so much time to study the building that it will help us out in the construction phase."

According to Hutto, that construction phase will be complex, as the old theater will have to accommodate both divas and rock stars.

As previously reported in the Hook, Capshaw has partnered with the Ash Lawn Opera Company ["Opera theater: Summer opera moves to historic Jefferson," August 12], which will help fund the project and occupy the space during the summer opera season. In the other nine months of the year, Hutto says, the space will be a music hall/night club presenting between 12 and 18 shows a month. He also says the space will be available for rent and will serve the book, film, and photo festivals.

"There will be a physical conversion of the building twice a year," explains Hutto, from a 500-seat opera house to a music hall with a dance floor and room for 700 revelers. "The acoustic needs are totally different for the two," he adds. Indeed, the design plan includes a 50-person orchestra pit, a silent-running HVAC system that won't interrupt unamplified voices, plus a killer sound system for the rock shows.

"They have had their eyes on that building for many years," says Hutto of the opera company, which has an office on the Downtown Mall, courtesy of Capshaw. "When Coran bought the building, there were talks with the opera company, but everything on everyone's wish list was a budget buster."

It was also difficult to navigate the legalities of the partnership, says Hutto, which joins a nonprofit organization with a for-profit one. But all seems to have worked out swimmingly in the end.

"I'm thrilled," opera company director Judy Walker told the Hook. "We're all very excited about the prospect of moving to the Jefferson and not having to deal with mud and heat."

Since 1978, the Company has dodged raindrops, newlyweds, and the occasional strolling peacock to present outdoor opera at Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of fifth president James Monroe. The opera company is embarking on a $4.5 million capital campaign to help pay its share of the Jefferson renovation costs.

As Hutto explains, the first phase of the construction will involve excavating under the old theater to build the orchestra pit, as well as dressing rooms, the director's room, offices, and storage space. "It's just a small basement and crawl space right now," he says. That will mean some pretty heavy construction activity on Water Street as the Landmark Hotel is being built at the same time.

Project architect Gate Pratt calls it a "long overdue" renovation of a beautiful old theater that will restore it to its former grandeur. "It won't be quite as ornate as the Paramount," he says, "but it will have a simple elegance, already contained in the original design."

Capshaw has said he is committed to maintaining the history of the Jefferson, which has played host to everything from high school plays to film premieres to live performances by the likes of Dave Matthews, Terri Allard, Harry Houdini, and the Three Stooges.

The design plan also includes a few surprises– a small club below the lobby with room for 100 people, and a restaurant in the old Innisfree World Artisans/Obama headquarters with a kitchen below.

"Since we can't add on to it," says Hutto, "the real challenge has been to create a lot of new space within the building."