Expanding a house of artPublished 10:00am Monday, September 24, 2012
With an architect chosen, the Austin Area Commission for the Arts is moving closer to an expansion of the Historic Paramount Theatre
The flashing lights at the Paramount Theatre may shine brighter over the next several months. The historic building, opened as a movie theater in 1929, is closer than ever to an expansion project that has been in the works for more than 20 years.
The Austin Area Commission for the Arts board has finally chosen an architect, Miller Dunwiddie Architecture of Minneapolis, to plan an expansion.
“They just seemed to fit our needs the best out of all the firms,” said Jennie Knoebel, Paramount executive director.
It’s been quite the process, as Paramount staff hired a grantwriter last year to secure $7,000 from the Minnesota Historical Society and sent out proposal requests in April to architects hoping for concept drawings to kickstart an expansion.
The search came to an end earlier this week, when AACA board members decided to go with Miller Dunwiddie, which has worked on more than 600 theaters in the region since its founding in 1963.
The nice thing about Miller Dunwiddie, according to Paramount staff, is the firm will help the AACA figure out exactly what the expansion should look like while still keeping the building historically authentic. The firm had many creative ideas Paramount staff hadn’t necessarily thought of before, according to Knoebel.
“They have a lot of experience working with historic theaters,” Knoebel said. “That is their specialty.”
The next step for Paramount officials is holding a two-day planning session where Miller Dunwiddie experts will help AACA members and community stakeholders, including donors and members of local arts groups, figure out exactly how to expand the Paramount.
That could prove to be complicated, as the AACA has plenty of options. Paramount property technically extends about 20 feet to the east of the Fourth Avenue NE building and 40 feet to the north. The AACA also owns about eight feet of property west of the theater.
While AACA members have assumed for years the Paramount expansion would take place east of the building — the city of Austin made things easier last year by removing two sewer pipes on the east side of the property because of flood mitigation plans — Miller Dunwiddie representatives made the AACA pause and realize there were many ways to configure an expansion, and many things to consider when trying to upgrade a historic building.
Whereas before the AACA was considering things like a possible art gallery as part of the expansion, all ideas will be considered during the planning phase.
“We’re kind of starting with a fresh slate,” Knoebel said. “That’s part of what this planning process [is about].”
Some obvious considerations, like making the building more handicap accessible, expanding the lobby, and improving the bathrooms and dressing rooms will be addressed, along with some possible stage and lighting improvements. Yet even those options are up in the air, as Knoebel said the idea behind the planning process is to not have preconceived notions of what to improve.
AACA members are happy the expansion is gearing up, as it fits with the renaissance-style improvement across Austin, from the various expansions and new buildings taking place to the Vision 2020 community improvement project.
“It’s been amazing,” said Dave Sylte, AACA president. “Things that have been discussed for years all of a sudden are hitting at the same time. It couldn’t be better.”
With all of that to consider, the much-discussed expansion fundraising campaign may not happen until next fall, as it could take up to a year to get a design worked out. That could prove helpful, as Paramount staff may have the expansion spaced out over several projects, depending on the plan. Yet the Paramount won’t slow down as a music-centric theater. Theater staff are looking at expanding its programming to include showing more movies, having more community events and getting bigger acts to come to town.
The expansion has been a long time coming, ever since the AACA formed in 1987 to bring the Paramount back as a theater and a historic place. Now that the “stars have aligned,” according to former AACA board member Jim Burroughs, the expansion that was planned from the beginning is on its way.
“It’s been a work in progress,” Burroughs said. “It’s just time. There’s always been a plan to do it. Now, it’s absolutely time to do it.”
Paramount Theatre Timeline
The Paramount Theatre has been an important arts and entertainment fixture in Austin for decades. Opening in 1929, the theater has gone through several incarnations, from a cinema to a bar to its current form as a music and theater venue.
With the upcoming expansion, the Paramount is poised to maintain its position as a regional arts hub.
•1929 — Opens as a first-run movie house on Sept. 14.
•1975 — Closes as the last downtown movie theater, showing “The Godfather — Part II.”
•1977-1987— The theater goes through several phases as a disco bar, teen club and comedy club.
•1988 — The Paramount is named to National Register of Historic Places.
•1990 — The Austin Area Commission for the Arts becomes a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization.
•1992 — The AACA finalizes the purchase of the Paramount Theatre.
•1993 — Fundraising efforts commence for renovations.
•1996 — The AACA removes the 1950’s era marquee to make room for reproduction of the original 1929 marquee.
•1999 — The AACA completes restoration painting in the theater interior headed up by artist John Durfey.
•2001— A donation by Virginia Wilder allows for construction of a replica of the 1929 marquee.
•2002 — Paramount Theatre’s restoration’s first major fund drive begins with a $1 million dollar goal.
•2004 — The Paramount celebrates its 75th anniversary by installing a cloud machine.
•2005 — Donations and a discount from Marvin Windows and Doors assist with the replication and installation of original doors.
•2007 — Donations from Virginia Wilder, the Plehal family, a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society and other patron donations make it possible to complete the spire restoration process.
•2011— Paramount officials hire a grantwriter to secure funding for expansion proposals and architecture designs.
•2012 — The AACA names Miller Dunwiddie as architect for the upcoming Paramount expansion.
Source: Austin Area Commission for the Arts