Lyric Theater on track to open in mid-September

As work progresses on old East End theater, plans for its use take shape

ksaltz@herald-leader.comJune 11, 2010 

The old Lyric Theatre stands like a skeleton on the corner of East Third Street, but almost a year into construction, the project is on schedule to be finished by mid-September.Architect Susan Hill said things look promising for the project that left little to work with.

The renovation of the Lyric Theatre, Lexington's African-American cultural hub in the 1940s and '50s, was an arduous process involving two decades of planning, debating and misplaced funding. In July, the crew broke ground on the $6 million project, at Third Street and Elm Tree Lane. In addition to the 540-seat theater, a second building featuring a museum will complete the Lyric Theater and Cultural Arts Center. The two buildings are separated by an outdoor courtyard.

Steel beams and concrete are the bare bones of the project many hope will spark a cultural renaissance in the East End of Lexington. Time took its toll on the property, and not much remained of the theater by the time the architects received the project.

"There weren't many original features left to preserve," Hill said.

The one item those familiar with the Lyric might recognize is the terrazzo flooring in the lobby, which the crew was able to salvage. Other architectural features could not be reused, but the original designs are getting a revival in certain areas. Hill said the theater will reflect the old image but with new materials.

"The sign will look the same. I think the sign will be the signature piece of the building," Hill said.

The original design for the box office, with a glass front and backlighting, will also be used in the new Lyric, replicating the old ticket booth.

In the mid-20th century era of segregation, the stage was built for a movie screen, so live performers were forced to adapt to tight spaces. The dressing areas were cramped rooms in the basement. Hill said the majority of the facilities would not be up to code today, so the upgrades were necessary. Now, an extended stage will be the centerpiece of the theater. Staff rooms also were created throughout the building.

Many of the upgrades include environmental considerations. Hill said the city, which owns the building, wanted the center to be sustainable and focused on environmental impact. Plants will be installed on the roof and an outside wall, and trenches will collect and distribute runoff water to the plants. To allow natural daylight into the museum building, one wall is made of glass from floor to ceiling.

While the city focused on saving the environment, community members worked to make sure the building saved their heritage, as well. Freda Meriwether, chairwoman of the Lyric Theater and Cultural Arts Center board, said people were full of ideas for what the building should contain.

"People at the community meetings had a laundry list of things they wanted to see," Meriwether said. "Obviously we couldn't get all those things, but there is a museum, a place to show African-American history, a place for movies, events. ... It's a culture center, so we wanted to feature local artists. We wanted people to have an outlet, and this filled a niche."

Much like the building, the administration for the Lyric will have to be built from scratch. Everett McCorvey, a member of the Lyric board's personnel committee, said the application deadline for an executive director for the cultural center has been extended until the end of June.

McCorvey said the committee has advertised the opening to state and national organizations such as the Kentucky Arts Council. The board aims to select an executive director by the end of August, and McCorvey said many people have contacted the committee about the position.

"We want to be able to announce the director with the opening of the Lyric, so we need someone who can hit the ground running," he said.

Joan Brannon, a former member of the Lyric Task Force, which worked as a liaison between the community and the city, was contracted by the city to move forward with programming for the Lyric. Brannon said she is working to schedule events for the center after its opening.

She also said the community made it clear they wanted public art to be incorporated into the building to represent the area's voice.

Several groups are hosting quilting bees to create a huge community quilt to be hung in the building. Meriwether said the quilt will reflect the history of the neighborhood.

"People are donating curtains, tablecloths, anything to use as material," she said. "It can be something about family, about church. If you have a skirt your grandmother wore to the Lyric, you can use that."

While the quilt will be a look back, Brannon said, another art project is about moving forward. A 20-foot wall will feature art by community members and focus on a theme of rebirth, which is what Brannon said this construction project is all about.

"We wanted to express what the community was feeling, the notion of a phoenix rising from the ash," she said. The art will also use the image of a sankofa, a mythical bird that flies forward while looking backward, a symbol of the Lyric's new structure with old roots.

Despite a brutal winter, Hill, the architect, said the construction is on schedule to be completed in time for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which start Sept. 25.

She said the building is a solid foundation, but what makes the design complete is the cultural significance.

"In many ways, it is not an architecturally strong building, but it is a keeper of memories," she said.

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