by Michael R. Allen
There seems to be some confusion as to the fate of the elegant, vacant Sun Theater at 3627 Grandel Square in midtown. The sumptuously-ornamented theater has been owned by the Land Reutilization Authority since 2009, when long-time owner Grand Center, Inc. conveyed the theater to the city. Before and after that transaction, news about the theater has ranged from an absurd plan to dismantle the front elevation and rebuild it on Grand Avenue adjacent to Powell Hall to a promising but unsuccessful effort by KDHX to convert the building to its studios. The Sun was on Landmarks Association’s 2007 Most Endangered Places list.
Currently, according to Grand Center, Inc., the nearly-completed rehab of the Pythian Building to the east for the Grand Center Arts Academy will be followed by rehabilitation of the Sun Theater into the school’s auditorium and performance space. Yet after a storm in late February caused masonry damage to the western wall of the Sun, the LRA issued a request for proposals (RFP) to demolition contractors for demolishing the venerable theater. One demolition contractor reports that LRA would not allow interior access to prospective bidders.
Since the demolition RFP went out in early April, LRA has not applied for a demolition permit. Grand Center, Inc. makes it clear that the Grand Center Arts Academy still intends to acquire and rehab the building. Yet the western wall of the Sun needs repair after a large area of the outer brick wythe (or layer) spalled.
The spalling at the Sun is the perfect example of how preventative maintenance keeps big problems from happening. The outer wythe of the Sun’s western wall was compromised by a tree’s roots growing horizontally through the wall. The tree itself stood out of a concrete-block addition toward the north end of the wall, but the roots found an opening and grew into the wall. As the roots spread, they invaded and expanded any gap between the outer and inner wythes, right at the base of the wall. The storm knocked into a wall that had significant separation problems.
Of course, the Sun’s main attraction is its gorgeous neoclassical front elevation, articulated by glazed cream terra cotta, a projecting cornice and striking framed brick panels. The terra cotta includes theatrical grotesques over the arched windows at center and in the cornice’s upper garland course. These grotesques and other pieces are accented with a brilliant blue glaze. Two fluted pilasters with ionic capitals at the center bay over the entrance project a sense of gravitas contrasting with the more Baroque sensibilities of the rest of ornament.
The aggrandized architectural program of this front elevation is the work of architects Widmann & Walsh, who designed this building as the Victoria Theater. Widmann & Walsh and its predecessor firm E. Jungenfeld & Company were St. Louis premiere architects of brewery buildings, including those at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. These designers knew how to mix folly with stateliness to create the great industrial castles of St. Louis’ brewers. The Victoria, which opened in 1913, fit in their body of work well.
As the Victoria, the theater hosted German-language live theater. Amid the din of World War I nationalism, the theater closed in 1917 and reopened as the patriotic Liberty and showed motion pictures. By the 1930s and 1940s the theater was a burlesque house under the names The World and the 400 Club. The current name first surfaced briefly at the end of the 1940s through 1952, when the theater became named the Lyn. In 1967, after a long period of near-continual closure, the Lyn housed the Faith Tabernacle church for a few years. However, by 1972 the building was vacant and boarded.
So the building has sat, with one attempt at revival around the early 1980s. In 1997, Grand Center revived one of the theater’s more obscure names and restoring the Lyn’s marquee with a shift to another three letters on the sign blade. At night the Sun Theater is ablaze with the pulse of neon, while during the day its condition causes many to wonder if electric light will ever again fill the entire building.
Some of the photographs here were taken by Michaela Burwell-Taylor, Preservation Research Office’s intern photographer. We are delighted to be able to use her work to illustrate blog posts here.