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Theatre Restoration Takes Center Stage

Tue October 05, 2010 - Southeast Edition
Angela B. Hurni

The 1930s-era Franklin Theatre on Main Street in downtown Franklin, Tenn. is getting a facelift. The owner of the theatre, the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County, is a nonprofit organization that has been actively planning and fundraising in anticipation of the restoration and expansion ever since it acquired the theatre in 2007. Batten & Shaw Inc., is the general contractor on the project, and Hastings Architecture Associates LLC is handling the design; both companies are based in Nashville, Tenn.

Groundbreaking for the restoration was held April 7, 2010, and the projected opening date is Spring 2011. The project is comprised of two buildings — the original Franklin Theatre built in 1937 and another building next door, a pool hall, which dates back to the 1920s.

“They still look like two buildings from the exterior,” explained Mary Pearce, executive director of Heritage Foundation, “but they are being constructed as one multi-use performing center from the interior.”

The smaller pool hall building is being used for support services, such as restrooms, offices and concessions. A second-story addition has been added to the rear of both buildings where a “green room,” backstage area, catering kitchen and tech area will be located.

“We started with 7,500 square feet in both the buildings and now have more than 11,000 square feet,” Pearce noted.

The theatre will be multi-use entertainment spot. It will be unique in that it will host live performances and events in addition to movies. There will be a new elevator installed and concession areas will be available on both floors. Furthermore, there will be modern sound, light and projection systems in the theatre. Also, a unique neon marquee, displayed on the façade from 1937 to the early 1970s, will be replaced. There will be upwards of 300 seats incorporated into the design, which is inspired by the theatre’s Depression-era Art Deco motif.

According to Sean Farrell, senior project manager of Batten & Shaw, since the Franklin Theatre has a relatively small layout and less square footage compared to other similar theatres, “there has been careful and arduous planning to ensure the theatre allows for as many seating spots as possible, roughly 303 currently.”

So far, the new addition’s roof structure and building structure are complete. A new balcony structural system has been constructed inside the theatre, new flooring for the seating area has been installed, and underground lighting needs have been installed and are ready for finishes. The new roof for the entire project is finished and the building is “water tight.” Also completed, all underground storm and sanitary sewer connections that impact parking in the rear of the building.

Work that is in progress consists of the new elevator shaft wall system, which has been constructed, and is ready for the new elevator cab to be installed. The marquee sign and the new LED sign have been designed and purchased; both signs are currently under fabrication. Part of the historic preservation, the reconstruction of 417 side windows, is almost finished. Drywall is currently being hung, and work on the exterior front and rear facades is almost complete.

“The biggest accomplishment to date,” said Farrell, “the project remains on schedule and currently at or just below original budget.”

The theatre’s urban, compact location is ideal for business but has proven tricky for its renovation.

“It has been challenging to work in an urban environment,” said Pearce. “Every time we do something, we are affecting at least 12 businesses.”

The theatre is situated along side retail shops and restaurants, so the contractor tries to schedule potentially disruptive work in the early morning hours.

Businesses that used to be on Main Street have left an impact on the site as well. For example, a car dealership that disappeared from Main Street in the early 1980s left behind oily soil from questionable oil disposal practices.

“We removed about 60,000 tons of damaged soil,” Pearce said. “Waste management had to put it into special containers for shipping.”

Likewise, the contractor has had to adapt to the site layout as needed.

Farrell stated, “The building is connected to other old building lines, and we are very limited in space and lay down area thus requiring special equipment to bring material.”

On-site storage space is limited, so materials are delivered “by demand,” said Farrell. In some instances, Main Street has to be shut down while the Franklin City Police monitor traffic during deliveries. Furthermore, the limited size of the site has made the installation of the underground utilities difficult; the contractor has completed this work with backhoes and trenching equipment.

One instance where Main Street had to be shut down occurred on Sept. 20 when the roof top units (RTUs) were installed using a rental crane from Elliott The Crane People of Nashville, Tenn.

The process began at 5 a.m. when barricades and caution tape were set in place for the work area along with an additional closure of a large parking area. Over the next several hours, safety measures were put in place, the crane was set up, and the RTU lift was completed.

Workers were assembled to assist and redirect any people arriving in downtown during the lift period.

Batten & Shaw must focus on safety in such a dense environment. Farrell explained that it was “not an option to have any pedestrian or vehicle traffic anywhere in this vicinity during this lift.”

One of the design goals of the renovation is to have a finished product that is a LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) structure, which will result in a high-performance green building. The Franklin Theatre will be the town’s first LEED-certified restoration.

Another way that the reconstruction will be “green” is by recycling and reusing whenever possible and trying to send nothing to the landfill.

For example, when demolishing the interior, old seats and fixtures were found new homes and old supplies were donated to charitable organizations.

Another aspect of the interior demolition was the challenge the original building’s design presented to the contractor. Due to the auditorium floor being concrete and sitting at an angle, Batten & Shaw rented from RSC Equipment Rental of Franklin a 40-ft (12 m) telescopic knuckle boom (oscillating), which was essential to the initial demolition. Currently, there is a 40-ft. wide by 17-ft. tall (12 by 5 m) scaffold stage inside the building that is crucial for work occurring near the ceiling.

The reconstruction is intended to mirror the original theatre’s aesthetic from the 1930s to the 1940s, yet this presents a host of challenges for the contractor. Namely, the building must meet current code obligations while adhering to the design of openness for seating and comfort and retaining exterior finishes.

“Since the building was mainly wood and masonry construction at the original building time,” Farrell elaborated, “our need to maintain these features, while ensuring current code obligations are met, requires careful planning and installation of structural components.”

Much of the work that has to meet code obligations will not even be visible to patrons returning to the theatre when it opens. Sound control features that encapsulate the sounds of a building’s functions, like HVAC systems, said Farrell, “require specific and unique approaches to interior wall construction and sound proofing.”

Special care also is taken when installing piping, duct, electrical conduits and structural elements not only to pass code requirements, but also to ensure the safety of the guests, performers, and staff in the event of an emergency.

To assist in construction, Batten & Shaw is overseeing approximately 17 subcontractors. Heritage Foundation also has supplied about four contractors and vendors of its choosing.

“We will be creating 35 to 40 construction jobs a day,” Pearce said.

With the help of donors and plenty of fundraising, the Heritage Foundation was able to come up with $6 million to purchase and renovate the theatre. An estimated $2 million more also will need to be raised for the project. CEG

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