West Short Street is on the verge of becoming a veritable Lexington theater district.
Already, it is home to the Lexington Opera House and the Lexington Children's Theatre. Come next fall, it will have a new 250-seat venue, in a school.
In addition to creating state-of-the-art classrooms for students in the Sts. Peter and Paul School, an $11 million expansion will include the renovation of the theater that sits at the front of the nearly 100-year-old school building and a gymnasium with an elevated walking track. (The building has housed only the middle school, but when it reopens in August, it will house the whole school, first through eighth grades.)
The gym and theater will be open to the public.
With its own active music and stage programs, the school, of course, will have first crack at using the theater, but principal Julie Wright says she envisions the space being available to the community, somewhat like the gymnasium at Calvary Baptist Church on High Street.
"That's always been our hope," Wright said on a frigid morning tour of the new space. "We want it to be a real community theater."
The theater could fill a void that many artists and arts administrators currently see between the black box theater in the Downtown Arts Center, which seats 100 to 200 people in most configurations, and the 866-seat Lexington Opera House.
The theater retains its 1913 allure. A scalloped proscenium arch ends in a cross over the center stage that, legend has it, would occasionally be illuminated by sunlight bouncing through a vent in a projection booth, which is no longer there.
The auditorium is wide and will have removable seats, because the school will want to use the space for a variety of events. Tall windows on each side fill the space with natural light, although in the finished renovation, it will be outfitted with blackout curtains.
Leading up to the theater from the Short Street entrance is a winding split-level staircase that finishes in the theater's modest lobby.
School leaders, including its fine arts coordinator, Nanci Barnhart, say they have communicated with theater experts, including SummerFest director Joe Ferrell, about what needed to go into the theater. Among the recommendations were to expand the wing space and provide a space for set design and storage.
Planning and overseeing the project is architect Gregory Fitzsimons, whose other theater projects include the Norsworthy Auditorium in the Fayette County Public Schools central office and the Leeds Theatre in Winchester.
"This is as much a renovation as an expansion," Fitzsimons said Tuesday morning, surveying the space.
Among the primary challenges in renovating the theater, which had seen limited use by the school, were making it meet requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act and updating it technologically. Students have not been in the Short Street building, which runs along Saunier Alley between Short and Second streets, for three school years. Classes have been held in a temporary building while renovations took place.
"We wanted to keep the charm of the old theater, while bringing it technologically into the 21st century," Fitzsimons said.
Project manager Joe Salsman of Alliance Construction said, "It was generally a solid building with no real problems."
The new theater is expected to be usable by June, with completion projected for July.
Fitzsimons said he recently had the light board for the theater brought into his office, and some students came in to try it out. "They took to it right away," Fitzsimons said.
Other changes included bringing the front of the stage out into the auditorium a bit and expanding the backstage area.
At Sts. Peter and Paul, when you're talking backstage, you're talking about an "arts wing" that will include classrooms for visual arts, drama and music.
The theater renovation is being paid for in part by a $465,000 matching grant from the W. Paul and Lucille Caudill Little Foundation, given to support both the theater renovation and the school's arts programs.
In expanding and renovating the school space, Sts. Peter and Paul supporters and staff say they are bucking a trend away from urban Catholic schools. The Short Street Building closed in 1989, and it reopened for the middle school in 1996.
Development director Jeanne Miller says enrollment for the school overall is 409 students for the 2010-11 school year, up from 380 for the current year. With new state-of-the-art facilities, they expect that to continue.
Among non-arts additions to the school is a science lab donated by Pearse Lyons, founder and president of Alltech, the Nicholasville-based biotechnology company.
From the arts standpoint, Miller says, the school likes the "cultural district" location, where students have easy access to places like the Lexington Children's Theatre, Opera House and ArtsPlace.
But staying in downtown, school leaders say, was more than just a commitment to the school. It was a commitment to the community. And the theater and gym, and having people in and using it, is a big part of that commitment.
"Of course, accommodating our programs will be the first priority," said Wright, the principal. "But we want the community to see there is a new place to perform."