Downtown Historic Preservation

Kiel Opera House Will Be Under Construction Again

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph of a scale plaster model of the Kiel Opera House, courtesy of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation.

This morning, by a vote of 25-1 the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved the redevelopment plan for the Kiel Opera House proposed by SCP Worldwide and McEagle Properties. This action green-lights a swift rehabilitation plan that will have the grand opera house reopened by Christmas 2010. While the redevelopment terms may not be ideal, they are an improvement over the years of city inaction and political hostility to the opera house.

The Kiel Opera House opened in April 1934 as Municipal Auditorium and Opera House. The Municipal Auditorium was a true people’s palace, designed to bring citizens in touch with art, music, culture and ideas. Designed by LaBeaume and Klein, the building combined classical formalism with modern, Art Deco sensibility — a perfect balance of restraint and exuberance that captured the spirit of a growing city. The later namesake, Mayor Henry Kiel, strongly backed the construction of a tremendous public resource forsaken by a later generation. However, construction came about through a bold financing move — inclusion in the $87 million series of bond issues voters approved in 1923. Construction was an extraordinary and visionary act by city government. (The full history is available in Lynn Josse’s excellent National Register of Historic Places nomination for Kiel.)

The current rehabilitation plan should not have been extraordinary or visionary, because essentially Dave Checketts is simply reopening a facility for its original purpose. How that reopening ever became a controversial move is unfathomable, and rooted in a pervasive local mercantilism. (Read more in Steve Sagarra’s “Personal Politics: Revitalization of the Kiel Opera House”.)

Sure, Checketts’ company and McEagle are putting up little of the total project cost of $73.5 million themselves, but the details of the financing are not surprising. The city will issue $29 million in bonds financed by the $1.5 million in entertainment taxes generated — a deal that the St. Louis Cardinals already enjoy. (If the owners fail to generate those tax revenues, they are on the hook for the annual amount.) The use of historic rehab tax credits on the project is conventional. All in all, the deal is not a big risk for the city, and it invests the city government in the future of a public asset that the city has stewarded poorly for the past eighteen years.

For nearly two decades, Kiel Opera House has sat empty for no good reason. The facility is actually in good shape, with the interior largely intact and few significant maintenance problems. Civic leadership has been completely lacking. Kiel for the Performing Arts, Russ Carter, “Kiel Man” Ed Golterman and other activists kept the faith for years as two mayoral administrations studied various plans to gut the opera house to the private benefit of other parties. In fact it has taken a relative newcomer to city politics, Dave Checketts, to force the city to do something with the old people’s palace. The tenacity of McEagle Properties — subject of much of my recent writing — is a good match for this project, and has certainly helped move the plan to reality.

It’s unfathomable that the issue of competition would even be a major deterrent to reopening the Kiel, and that the owners of the Fox Theater would demand and obtain concessions regarding show booking and other details. If St. Louis cannot support two great live performance venues, we might as well hang up our claim to being a major city. Who wants to live in a one-theater town?

At any rate, in honor of the redevelopment, I am posting construction photographs from 1932 courtesy of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation.

Here’s a shot from April 1932 showing the cleared area and the beginning of construction:

Later in 1932, Mayor Victor J. Miller and others set the cornerstone at 14th and Market streets:

Construction of the foundation was progressing by the November date of the cornerstone laying. The following photographs show the temporary stands erected for viewing the ceremony: