Urban Stimuli: A peek inside restoration of Tampa Theatre

As creatures of newness and novelty, it is often the freshest entrant to market that grabs our attention and wallet. Society surges forward on technology like virtual home assistants and self-driving cars, and I find myself as a luddite -- increasingly nostalgic for analog, tactile experiences that screens and devices (and Teslas) cannot mimic.

The Tampa Theatre is one such example. As a native, I grew up on field trips to movies and shows at the historic space, quite literally mesmerized by the starry-night ceiling. I was simultaneously charmed and frightened by the dim hallways and corners, thick crimson carpeting, and stained-glass sconces (still my favorite feature). Many before and after me had the same experience, I’d guess.

Thus, it’s no surprise that a multifaceted effort is underway to preserve the theatre for audiences to come, and restore it to its original 1926 splendor.

Phase One will be mostly complete before the new year, and includes major updates like new, wider, more supportive seats across the entirety of the auditorium, as well as new carpet throughout. Gone is the sea of red, replaced with brown velvet and vinyl seating (authentic color choices, as close to the original as possible), and a new stage curtain in blue with pinstripes.

Some money is also dedicated to prudent but mostly unseen updates to the property’s electrical system, basement drainage, and other infrastructural needs.

The lobby will be the first dramatic upgrade you’ll notice. Significant attention has been paid to the wall plaster, its myriad embellishments, and whimsical adornments like gargoyles and bird cages. Forensic paint matching, a slow process of carefully removing layers of old paint, has revealed a vivid palette of greens, blues, reds, and yellows, which enliven the space tremendously.

On the practical side, a new concessions stand is designed for more efficient service and greater visual harmony with the rest of the lobby space. It is sleek and modern -- you’ll get your wine faster while you admire the textured metallic cladding.

When I visited, I witnessed workers deep in focus, installing granite café tables in the mezzanine and velvet banquette benches in the balcony. The lobby was thick with scaffolding, upon which technicians were gently adding layers of color to the decorative molding. 

Skilled labor is only one star that had to align in order for the work to begin. Many others have, over the years since the theatre was saved from destruction, spent time, money, or expertise on the renewal effort.

Who is involved? You might be surprised.

Donors & grants

Like many non-profit organizations, the Tampa Theatre Foundation gleans much of its financial backing from small individual donors. For this particular effort, which is $12 million total split in two phases, a few major contributors have sped the fundraising effort and helped theatre leadership secure grants which require 1:1 matching.

Bob Glaser of Smith & Associates donated $250,000. The estate of Richard Redman, interior designer and longtime arts patron, donated $623,000. Tampa Theatre board member Anne Arthur Pittman and her family donated $500,000. And an anonymous donor sent the theatre a check for $100,000.

Grants have come primarily from the Frank E. Duckwall Foundation, State of Florida, Hillsborough County, and City of Tampa.

Theatre leadership

CEO John Bell is the cheerful face overseeing on-site work from now until Phase One is complete. He’s ardent as anyone new to the charms of the theatre would be -- except he has been with the organization since 1985, longer than I’ve been alive.

He is guided by a Board of Directors that includes David Schwartz and Jack Amor of TECO Energy, Tampa City Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin, former City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena, now a community organizer, and Santiago Corrada, President of Visit Tampa Bay.


For such a sensitive operation in a tight timeline, several expert firms have been retained to help coordinate tasks.

Creative Contractors, Inc. of Clearwater serves as the general contractor; its experience includes work on the Capitol Theatre, Ruth Eckerd Hall, and Bryan Glazer Family JCC.

DLR Group is the architect, having recently acquired firm Westlake Reed Leskosky, both with prior experience in performing arts spaces and historic restorations, across the country. Learn more in a companion piece to this column, a Q&A with Architect Paul Westlake.

EverGreene Architectural Arts is the New York firm specializing in plaster, paint, wall coverings, and other decorative features common to gilded theatrical environments. Their work includes the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Boston Opera House, Fox Theatre in Oakland, Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, and Fifth Avenue Theatre in Seattle.

InVision Advisors led by Jonathan Moore of Tampa is the owner’s representative.

What’s next

CEO John Bell: “The improvements made in Phase One of our restoration are spectacular. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see greater momentum in our fundraising efforts [to get to the next $6 million goal] as audiences return to more pleasant seating, a visibly refreshed lobby with vivid new colors and detailing, and a completely rethought concessions area.”

While minor work may continue into 2018, theatre programming ramps back up as soon as the scaffolding is dismantled and extension cords are stowed.

Phase Two plans for more infrastructural upgrades and a thorough makeover of the auditorium, of similar scope to work on the lobby. A granular-level analysis of that space, with more surface area, elevation, and decorative features, could cost $2 million alone.

If I could write the check myself, I would. It’s an exceptional space, one impossible to recreate or replace. It also happens to be in Downtown Tampa and easily one of the most fiercely cherished places in our urban core.

For the latest information and showtimes, visit All Shows at Tampa Theatre.

Urban Stimuli is a monthly column in 83 Degrees dedicated to lifestyle and cultural innovations that are transforming Tampa’s urban core. These developments are making our city more exciting, vivacious and praiseworthy for visitors, newcomers and natives alike.

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Read more articles by Alex English.

Alex English is a Tampa native who has lived in Sarasota, Seattle, New York, Bordeaux and Milan. He is passionate about urban development, retail and style, and publishes Remarqed, a personal blog on those subjects.