Burwell Building Tennessee Theater
The historic Tennessee Theatre on Gay Street
|Location||Knoxville, Tennessee, USA|
|Built||October 1, 1928|
|Architect||Graven & Mayger|
|NRHP Reference #||82003979|
The Burwell Building was built in 1907. Measuring in at 166 feet (51 m) in height, it was Knoxville's tallest building until 1912. The Tennessee Theater occupies an annex to the building that was added in 1928. In the 1790s, the lot now occupied by the Burwell Building was home to a two-story log structure where the classes of Blount College— the forerunner of the University of Tennessee— were first held.
The theatre first opened on October 1, 1928, and with nearly 2,000 seats in the auditorium, was billed as "Knoxville's Grand Entertainment Palace". Its interior was designed by Chicago architects Graven & Mayger in the Spanish-Moorish style, although the design incorporates elements from all parts of the world: Czechoslovakian crystals in the French-style chandeliers, Italian terrazzo flooring in the Grand Lobby, and Oriental influences in the carpet and drapery patterns. The theatre was one of the first public buildings in Knoxville to have air conditioning. It also featured a beautiful Wurlitzer Organ.
During its heyday, the theatre played host to a few world movie premieres, including So This is Love (1953), and the adaptation of James Agee's All the Way Home (1963).
After a refurbishment in 1966, the theatre's seating capacity was reduced to 1,545.
The theatre changed owners several times over its life, and eventually closed for the first time in 1977. Thereafter it was open and closed intermittently for the remainder of the late 1970s. It was purchased by local radio company Dick Broadcasting in 1981, who started a renovation effort to prepare it for the 1982 World's Fair. On April 1, 1982, the theatre was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Portions of the 1999 film October Sky were filmed in and around Knoxville, and the facade of the theatre can be seen during a scene in which the main characters go to the movies.
More recently, the theatre was the home for the Appalachian Ballet, the Knoxville Opera, and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.
The Mighty Wurlitzer
The Wurlitzer was installed in the Tennessee Theatre at the time of its opening in 1928. It was built by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company in North Tonawanda, New York, and cost about $50,000 at that time.
In October 2000, virtually the entire organ was shipped to Reno, Nevada, to master organ rebuilder Ken Crome, who painstakingly restored the instrument piece by piece, and artisans and craftsmen returned the organ's appearance to its original 1928 color scheme and design. The chambers on either side of the stage, which house the pipes, were replastered to fully ensure the protection and preservation of the restored instrument.
The Wurlitzer returned to Knoxville in August 2001 and was re-installed over the course of the next month. Acclaimed theatre organist Lyn Larsen was involved in the configuration and tonal regulation of the organ, and was the first to publicly perform it at a gala concert on October 1, 2001.
Renovation and restoration
In 1999, the theatre, now owned by The Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation, was designated "The Official State Theatre of Tennessee". In 2001, the Foundation announced a campaign to completely restore and renovate the Theatre. The $29.3 million project was funded through public and private donations, with the help of $6.3 million in tax credits. The theatre closed for renovations in June 2003 to completely restore it to its original glamor.
Renovations included expansions of the stage depth and height to accommodate larger and more elaborate productions, a custom orchestra shell to enhance the acoustics of the new larger stage, an enlarged orchestra pit, upgraded dressing room facilities, modernization of the lighting, rigging, and other theatrical equipment, the installations of elevators, and a new marquee.
The restorations included new carpets, draperies, and lighting fixtures that duplicated the original designs, and historically accurate restoration of all plaster and paint surfaces throughout the lobby, lounges, foyers, and the auditorium. Integration of acoustic treatments into the restored auditorium and lobby, and a substantially improved exterior sound isolation system were included in the restoration design. Seating capacity is now 1,631 people.
The theatre reopened on January 14, 2005 to a near sold-out season, and now offers a wide range of performing arts events and classic films to the public. It is managed by AC Entertainment. Thermocopy has been a major presenting sponsor of the Theatre since its reopening in 2005.
The design team for this renovation effort included Westlake Reed Leskosky Architects of Cleveland, Ohio; McCarty Holsaple McCarty Architects of Knoxville, Tennessee; Evergreene Studios, Historic Restoration Consultants of New York, New York; and Acoustic Consultant Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago, Illinois.
Broadway at the Tennessee
After the failed "Broadway in Knoxville" series at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium finally had to come to an end due to a lack of profit, quality 'Broadway-Style' entertainment in Knoxville did not end, but was transferred to the Tennessee Theatre for a 2008-2009 season. The series, now presented by the Tennessee Theatre, was renamed 'Broadway at the Tennessee' and kicked off with 'Chicago'. Later productions included Movin' Out, Hairspray, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sweeney Todd, and Stomp. Broadway at the Tennessee's 2009-2010 season was scheduled to include Camelot, The Wizard of Oz, Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance, Mamma Mia!, Disney's Beauty and the Beast, and Avenue Q.
- Burwell Building, Emporis.com
- Daughters of the American Revolution plaque on the Burwell Building, 1925. Accessed: 17 April 2010.
- Knox County Listings at the National Register of Historic Places
- The Rehab Tax Credit at Work: Knoxville's Historic Tennessee Theatre, National Trust for Historic Preservation website, accessed February 8, 2010
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