Kimberly Lawler refurbished the theater’s historic backdrops by hand this spring.
by CHRIS ROGERS
The city of Winona’s $1.8-million renovation of the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre is all but finished. Local leaders say the project highlights both the venue’s potential and its need for more improvements.
City officials have big goals for the Masonic Temple to be a top-notch performing arts space in the center of downtown, and the theater had its first post-renovation event last weekend. Mid West Music Fest (MWMF) performers played in front of one of the newly restored, original-to-the-building backdrops. The drop’s river scene transformed from dark and stormy to ruddy dusk under the theater’s new lights. The temple’s new retractable seating was pulled back for MWMF so concert goers could dance on the now carpet-less hardwood floor. However, the seating system, which expands the venue’s capacity to over 200, will be put to use next weekend in the upcoming play “Mister James & Mister Jeff,” along with more of the refurbished historic backdrops. Proceeds from the play will be donated toward future renovations.
“I think it’s moving along well,” City Council member, former Winona Fine Arts Commission member, and Great River Shakespeare Festival Marketing & Sales Director Eileen Moeller said. “There’s this beautiful wooden floor now. There’s this bleacher system that can be used to create different seating situations and there’s lighting in there now,” she stated. “All of that means there’s more opportunities to use it for professional performances, whether that’s music or theater, or even if people want to have a wedding.”
Perhaps one of the most important parts of the recent renovation is also the least noticeable: the new rigging system. “The [previous] rigging system was literally condemned,” Winona Arts and Culture Coordinator Lee Gundersheimer reminded readers. The new rigging system suspends the theater’s historic backdrops, general-purpose backdrops, and all manner of other stage equipment. In 2014, city consultants discovered the temple’s previous rigging was frayed and in danger of falling on performers. As a temporary fix, the rigging was anchored to be immovable but safe. The new rigging system may be invisible to the audience, but it was a key part of making the theater fully functional again. “It means it is usable as a theater, which is pretty crucial,” Moeller explained.
“I think it’s a great start. It’s obviously not complete yet,” Fine Arts Commission Chair and Page Theatre Managing Director Theresa Remick said of the renovation. “I think the bathrooms upgrades look fantastic, at least for the ladies room. I think the lighting looked really nice onstage, and the drops looked fantastic as a backdrop for the musicians,” she stated. However, Remick added, “There’s still a lot left to do.”
City staff are preparing for a largely grant-funded project to repair the building’s exterior masonry. Installing a new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system is at the top of the city’s to-do list for the building. “It’s pretty inhospitable in the summer and in the dead of winter. So that’s crucial,” Moeller stated.
A $770,000 project to install new HVAC in 2020 is pencilled into the city’s current capital improvement plan (CIP), followed by $190,000 to replace windows in 2021. However, the City Council will not make a firm decision on whether to tackle the HVAC until this fall, when the council sets the city’s 2020 budget. Gundersheimer said the city’s plans for further improvements are in a holding pattern while city staff and consultants finalize a study of the building’s potential uses.
The soon-to-be-finished study takes a look at whether the Masonic Temple building could host both an expanded and improved performance venue, as well as the city’s bursting-at-the-seams senior center, the Friendship Center, which currently occupies the temple’s ground floor. The study also contemplates relocating the Friendship Center to an expanded East Recreation Center. Friendship Center members favor the latter option, and it would open new space and opportunities at the theater. However, City Council members and city manager Steve Sarvi have been wary of taking on a multi-million-dollar senior center expansion while the city faces other seven-digit-plus projects, such as finishing the Masonic Temple improvements and upgrading the Central Fire Station.
The Masonic Temple needs more than HVAC, Remick said. “From an arts-presenting perspective, I would say it’s not nearly finished in terms of a space for presenting professional arts events, in terms of there just not being dressing rooms and other facilities,” she stated.
City officials still hope to update the building’s electrical systems and install new sound equipment. They had hoped new sound equipment would be part of the recent renovation, but Gundersheimer said, “It literally came down to the dollars — what could fit in.” At a recent meeting, City Council member George Borzyskowski pointed out how dirty the auditorium walls are and asked if the city could clean them. The heavy new seating system’s wheels are also leaving ruts in the soft wood floor. “We’re in conversations as to how to address that,” Gundersheimer said.
To that needs list Remick would add private dressing rooms, showers for performers, and specification sheets outlining every piece of equipment in the theater. She explained that before they will agree to perform, many professional artists have detailed requirements for what equipment they need onstage and what space they need backstage. “There has been a lot of great work done, and I know a lot of it is work that people can’t even see, so it’s important to appreciate the work that has happened in that space, but I don’t think we’re there yet in terms of making [the Masonic] a premier downtown performance venue that’s going to be attracting artists,” she stated.
On the other hand, Remick continued, once the city provides technical specifications on the theater, there are plenty of opportunities to make good use of the venue even before any future improvements. “I think there’s a lot of people who want to use the space and make it a vibrant space for people downtown, and we’re maybe lacking information to make that happen,” she stated.
“There’s space for all of those things to happen,” Gundersheimer said of dressing rooms and other backstage amenities, adding that those spaces could double as game rooms for the Friendship Center, as well.
“I think we’re getting there,” Moeller said when asked if the Masonic Temple was on track to become a great venue. Moeller volunteered at the theater for MWMF, where visitors plied her questions about the building and its history. “I had quite a few people say, ‘What a cool venue. I’d love to come to more concerts here and shows here. This is the best venue in town,’” she recalled.
“They were impressed with this space,” former Fine Arts Commission member Mary Farrell said of MWMF artists with whom she spoke. “I think it’s a great place to perform. The acoustics were great. The ambience and the aesthetics are great.” She added of the remodeled women’s room: “Amazing. That bathroom is really something.”
Recalling her experience producing a play at a former Masonic Temple in Iowa, Moeller said, “There’s a lot of possibilities, not just theatrical productions, but any kind of production.” The Winona theater’s kitchen could act as an incubator for new food businesses, and the building’s office space could host local arts organizations, she suggested. “I think there are some really good models in other cities for potential public-private partnerships,” Moeller added.
“It’s going to be so cool when we get it done. You just have to have faith,” Gundersheimer said. “There’s a lot of potential in this space,” he added. “This space is just waiting to be reborn.”