Lyric Theatre – Restoring a Birmingham Gem

For months, scaffolding obscured the walls of Birmingham’s historic Lyric Theatre, but the gilt and rich hues are peeping through as the historic venue prepares to welcome the first event of its fresh-faced new life.

Plans call for a “modern vaudeville” show to re-open the Lyric in January, but so far the exact date hasn’t been set, says Brant Beene, executive director of Birmingham Landmarks Inc. (BLI), the not-for-profit organization behind the Lyric restoration. In fact, says Beene, the grand opening celebration may last for two or three days.

BLI owns and manages the nearby Alabama Theatre, also on Third Avenue North, as well as a number of other neighboring and nearby buildings it plans to redevelop over time. “We are committed to restoring and preserving for the public’s enjoyment Birmingham’s historic treasures, ” Beene says.

Ceiling in the back of the orchestra section was restored using a Giclée printing process applied like wallpaper.

And there’s a business plus to finishing up this year. If the theater earns its certificate of occupancy by the end of this year, then businesses that bought tax credits to help fund the Lyric project could begin using their credits in 2016 to defray tax bills.

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A gem from its Sylacauga marble floors to the plaster adornments gracing walls, balconies and ceiling, the Lyric opened in 1914 as a glamorous vaudeville theater hosting the likes of the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Buster Keaton and Milton Berle. Designed by theater architect C.K. Howell, it was one of about two dozen show houses in Birmingham’s thriving theater district of the time. 

“During its heyday, the Lyric was one of the few theaters where both blacks and whites could attend the same show, ” Beene says.

The 1, 000-seat Lyric was used for services for the Independent Presbyterian Church into the 1920s. After the emergence of the newer, 2, 500-seat Alabama Theatre and the decline of vaudeville-style performances, the Lyric was relegated to showing second run and classic movies. 

Eventually, after a brief stint as an adult movie house, the Lyric’s lobby was converted for retail use, including a beauty parlor. “The wall to the auditorium was sealed off at a certain point, which fortunately kept it better protected, ” Beene says.

Perhaps the crowning jewel of the Lyric is its “Allegory of the Muses” mural at the top of the proscenium arch, painted by Alabamian Harry Hawkins. The fanciful mural, which features gracefully swirling female figures and prancing elfin male figures, has been carefully cleaned to reveal its original beauty. “You can see one of the figures is holding up a lyre, the instrument from which the word ‘lyric’ is derived, ” Beene points out.

Unlike the wingless Alabama, which was designed to show silent movies, the Lyric’s 80-foot-wide stage features 20 feet of wing space on each side. While the Alabama is designed deep for more seating, the Lyric is wide, with shallower seating, so audiences would be closer to the live stage shows, as in a true Broadway theater. “The Lyric stage and proscenium resembles the bell of a trumpet and is known for its ‘pin drop’ acoustics, ” Beene says.

BLI tapped Birmingham’s Stewart Perry Construction to serve as construction manager for the project, managing the efforts for approximately two-dozen principal trade contractors, providing everything from demolition to exterior masonry restoration. 

Workers from Garrison Steel install new iron supports for opera boxes. Also note detail of interior wall restoration.

“We really appreciate the dedication and thoroughness that Stewart Perry has brought to the job, ” Beene says. “Merrill Stewart (president of the company) has taken a personal interest in this project, which we are thankful for. We know we can rest easy knowing they are making sure the renovation is being done in a way that we all will be proud of.”

One of the most specialized of the restoration contractors is EverGreene Architectural Arts of New York, which provided the plaster, mural restoration and plaster painting. The contractor has helped restore more than 250 historic theaters, including Radio City Music Hall. “They, for example, have painstakingly sculpted and cast the decorative plaster elements filling in missing elements, ” says Bruce Adams, Stewart Perry vice president.

Renovation of the Lyric to create a historic theater with modern conveniences and technology includes the installation of 13, 000 feet of electrical conduit. Huge air conditioning ducts, to keep the HVAC operating relatively noiselessly, are being tucked into the building’s interior. Seating has been reduced from 1, 000 to 750 to enable the modernization. 

Fundraising efforts for the Lyric renovation were headed by veteran Birmingham business advocate Tom Crosby. He was able to parlay his connections and fundraising savvy into $7 million in donations to the “Light Up the Lyric” campaign in eight and a half months, Beene says.

When the renovation budget edged up closer to $10 million, licenses to the opera box seats — for right of first refusal to any performance — were sold for an additional $1 million. The remaining $2 million was raised through BLI selling state tax credits. “Tom did an amazing job for us, ” Beene says. “Timed with the emergence of Railroad Park and Regions Field, interest in downtown was growing steadily and continues to increase.”

ServisFirst Bank provided financing, so work could proceed while pledges are collected over the next five years.

As work proceeds at the Lyric, new retail and residential ventures are sprouting nearby. “People will visit the Alabama and the Lyric even without local traffic, but it makes for a more dynamic and exciting experience as the district develops more fully, ” Beene says.

ABOVE Working far above the theater floor, an EverGreene worker applies base coat to the trim on the front of the balcony.


ABOVE LEFT Worker welds a support column, part of the stage support structure.

ABOVE RIGHT Garrison Steel workers pose in the midst of work to restore opera boxes.

ABOVE “Allegory of the Muses” mural after cleaning and restoration by EverGreene Architectural Arts.

Subcontractors on the Lyric Theater renovation project

Britt Demolition — demolition,  Russo Corp. — foundations,  MSE Building Co. — concrete work,  Masonry Arts — exterior masonry restoration,  Masonry Arts — interior marble and terrazzo,  Garrison Steel — steel material and erection,  B.D. Welch Construction — wood framing, trim, doors and frames hardware,  Southern Woodsmith — millwork,  CSC Roofing — roofing,  R. B. Atkins — insulated metal panels,  Brawco — waterproofing,  J & R Glass — glass and glazing,  EverGreene Architectural Arts — plaster, mural restoration and plaster painting,  R & T Acoustics — drywall and acoustical work,  Shannon Brothers — ceramic tile,  PCI of Chelsea — painting,  Covington Flooring — wood floors and stage floor,  Mainstage Theatrical Supply — theatrical equipment and lighting,  RPA Inc. — auditorium seating,  Mountain Heating and Cooling — heating, ventilation and air conditioning,  Automatic Fire Systems — fire protection system,  H & M Mechanical — plumbing,  Eldeco Inc. — electrical

Kathy Hagood and Joe De Sciose are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood and he in Birmingham.

Story by Kathy Hagood • Photo essay by JOE DE SCIOSE

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