The Paramount Theatre
By Jodi Harris
Change is good, but preserving a cherished historical treasure is an extraordinary achievement. The Paramount Theatre will soon reopen with renewed elegance following a comprehensive renovation and restoration project. Severely damaged by the worst flood in our city’s history in 2008, the restored landmark will feature a multitude of improvements. The City of Cedar Rapids has worked closely with Ryan Companies and OPN Architects who sub-consulted with many internationally acclaimed design consultants for historic architecture, theatre design, acousticians, an organ consultant and a historic paint consultant, to make the project a reality.
The goal is to create a financially viable, multipurpose venue suitable for symphony, theatre, opera, organ recitals, community productions, film and community gatherings, and to better serve Eastern Iowa through the 21st Century.
Originally opened on September 1, 1928 as the Capitol Theatre, the venue offered a full variety of entertainment which included sing-alongs featuring the “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ and silent films. Today, The Paramount Theatre, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of just 300 movie palaces left in the United States. Built in the architecturally extravagant 1920’s, the theatre décor highlights include chandeliers, plush seats, and ornate detailing throughout the building. Currently home to Orchestra Iowa, the Cedar Rapids Area Theatre Organ Society, commonly known as CRATOS, and Cedar Rapids Community Concerts. The theatre was purchased by Paramount Studios and renamed The Paramount Theatre in 1929. It was then gifted to the City of Cedar Rapids in December of 1975. At that time, it was decided the theatre should be restored to its original state. The restoration was completed without using tax proceeds, as a fund drive conducted by an appointed Commission raised over $400,000 in pledges and donations from industry, businesses and individuals.
According to the City’s dedicated flood recovery website, www.crprogress.com, key enhancements include increased protection from future floods, enhancement of stage house functions, improved patron experience with more comfortable seating and better acoustics, respect of historic integrity, incorporation of sustainable design strategies, and improved synergy between the Paramount Theatre and Orchestra Iowa building.
The “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ is one of few surviving working organs from the American Vaudeville Era. Cedar Rapids will be one of only two cities having two working theatrical organs in original installations when the reconstruction is complete. The organ will be rehabilitated using proceeds from insurance agreements rather than through FEMA funding.
The City of Cedar Rapids owns the organ and maintains an agreement with CRATOS for caretaking. CRATOS plans to restore the organ to play exactly the way it played when originally installed in 1928 to accompany silent films.
“The City of Cedar Rapids recognizes that the Wurlitzer Pipe organ installed in the Paramount Theatre is every bit as iconic, significant, and vital to Arts in the Community as the building itself,” says Jeff Weiler, JL Weiler, Inc. Principal Organ Consultant.
No detail was left unnoticed in the renovation of the theatre as it has been restored to the original ornate, elegance of the décor of the 1920’s.
Orchestra Iowa and VenuWorks recently announced a partnership to jointly manage the historic Paramount Theatre. “Paramount Presents,” the artistic arm of the City-owned Theatre, will be committed to serving our community through a diverse and extensive depth of cultural, educational and entertainment programming. Events at the Paramount Theatre will include the broadest possible range of top quality cultural, educational and entertainment events. Events featuring Orchestra Iowa, Broadway productions, concerts, comedians, performing arts groups, community/civic events, dance, meetings and competitions will bring the theatre back to life. VenuWorks also manages The Cedar Rapids Events Center and Ice Arena.
Funding Sources include FEMA Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation grants totaling approximately $21 million; I-JOBS Grant, $5 million; State & Federal Historic Tax Credits, $8.7 million, and the Iowa Economic Development Authority, $63,000. The estimated total project cost is approximately $34.7 million.
“This is the project of my career. Incredibly complex, beautifully ornate, and loved by an entire community; it is truly an honor to work on such a beautiful and awe-inspiring community treasure,” says Sandy Pumphrey, Building Facilities Capital Project Manager, Public Works Department, City of Cedar Rapids. “I’m looking forward to bringing my kids and even my grandkids here for years to come, sitting next to them with a smile on my face and contentment in my heart, thinking back to the long journey of flood recovery of Eastern Iowa’s theatrical gem.”
As residents observe the many changes to the face of our city, there is comfort in seeing The Paramount Theatre, 123 3rd Avenue SE, still standing ornate and proud in downtown Cedar Rapids. We have much to look forward to as the theatre approaches the reopening this fall.
To follow the progress of the renovation and the many other building and revitalization projects in Cedar Rapids, visit www.cedar-rapids.org and click on CR Progress.