Stunning Before and After Images of Sun Theatre Redefine The “Feasible” Project

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LA-based photographer Michael Kelley was recently hired by the Lawrence Group to document its renovation of the Sun Theatre in Grand Center. The official announcement of the $11M renovation was made just last summer. The stunning before and after images provide the first full look at the new Sun. Such a transformation should remind us that the “feasibility” of a project is related to the willingness and ability of a developer to complete a project, and not a building’s potential for renovation. Please visit Michael’s blog to read more about his experience photographing the Sun, and his other projects.


Photographing the historic Sun Theater in St Louis, MO by Michael Kelley

A few weeks ago I packed up the gear, took a way-too-early flight out of Los Angeles and landed a few hours later in St Louis, where I would be photographing the recently-restored Sun Theater for the St. Louis based architecture firm The Lawrence Group. 

The Sun Theater has a long and storied history – first opened in 1913 as a theater for German-language plays, it went through a number of changes over the years – from playhouse to movie theater to men’s club and just about everything in between. Roughly 40 years ago, it was left abandoned as demand declined and other theaters competed. During this time, the building was left exposed to the elements: countless freeze-thaw cycles, a roof that leaked like a sieve, and of course the damage caused by local troublemakers. Pieces began to fall off, walls began to collapse, and nature began to take a toll on the building.

In 2010, a new school was founded near the old Sun Theater. The Grand Center Arts Academy, which caters to grades 6-12, moved into nearby buildings. With a curriculum focused on performance and visual arts, the GCAA had a vision of restoring the theater to its former glory for use as both a performance venue and classrooms. Over the last five years or so, they worked with The Lawrence Group to study the building and assess the feasibility of restoring it. According to Aaron Bunse, the project director at The Lawrence Group, the building’s bones and foundation were solid as a rock. The building, he said, was built like a tank, and most of the damage was cosmetic. A restoration was definitely feasible, and in January of 2013 renovations began. After a little more than a year and roughly $11.5m were poured into it, the theater has undergone a major upgrade and the results are simply stunning.

The Lawrence Group hired me to create a series of photographs showing the updated Sun Theater, and over the course of three days (two shoot days and a scouting day) we made seven images: two exterior twilights and five interior photos. Let me be honest, when you walk in this place, it is absolutely breathtaking. I’ve never seen a theater with such a juxtaposition of modern amenities and early 1900s detail. The restoration that went into this is simply jaw-dropping. Capturing it proved to be both tricky and rewarding. As usual, the biggest challenge was lighting. Switching breakers on and off, adjusting dimmers, adding light and removing light. Every shot took a fair bit of lighting work, which isn’t out of the ordinary, but when you’re dealing with a space of this size, it sure is exhausting!

I’ve gone ahead and with the permission of my client, used a number of their ‘before’ pictures, so you can see how the theater looked before undergoing restoration compared to my photographs of the finished theater.

This is the view when you first walk out into the upper balcony area. An enormous stage flanked by a golden proscenium and a striking yet calming blue color palette to contrast it.

Many thanks to Aaron Bunse of The Lawrence Group who graciously let me use the ‘before’ images to compare with my ‘post renovation’ finished images.

Looking across from the balconies, you can begin to appreciate the amount of restoration work that went on here. Much of the plaster work across the proscenium was destroyed over time, and it was all restored by hand using the same methods that were used to install the plaster back in 1912-13.

Standing on the stage, you get to see just what an incredible transformation the place underwent. I’m in love with the colors they chose, as well. I can’t imagine being a high school student and walking out to this – nerve wracking! From this angle, you can also see how they redesigned the building. They removed a few hundred seats to add classrooms behind the far rear wall, providing the students with more than just a huge concert hall. There are rehearsal rooms, standard classrooms, and small amphitheater-like rooms for small ensembles to play in.

From the back of the stage, the scale of the building becomes evident. The Sun Theater was built with a huge backstage area, with a flywall tall enough to accommodate multiple stage backdrops and plenty of rigging.

In the front, the entryway is no less beautiful than the rest. Marble floors and hand-made plaster moulding make for a pretty grand entrance. Much of the smaller details were re-created by The Lawrence Group simply by hand and drawing in details, then brainstorming to figure out how to reproduce it. So much of the plasterwork had been lost to time that in many places, educated guessing was the only way to go.

And outside, the front facade has been impeccably restored. From this angle, you get a sense of the context in which the Sun Theater is placed. To the right, the rest of the Grand Center Arts Academy campus can be seen, as well as the theater scroll for the Powell Symphony Hall, another St Louis mainstay.

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  • clebeau05

    great article. Amazing Pics. Thanks Alex.

  • RobbyD

    Great story and good article. Some truly neat stuff continues in our city.

  • Jakeb

    I would encourage everyone to go look at the exterior of the building as I did last night. The restored facade is beautiful and full of small details that these photos can’t convey.

  • moe

    When I saw this on FB, I thought….eghhh…kind of bland on the outside. Coming here to see the full post and I think…WOW. Love the interior and the fact that FINALLY a photographer takes before and after photos from the same vantage point. I hate looking at before and after photos that don’t line up because of laziness of the photographer, but I digress.
    It still is missing something. Not on the inside, but on the outside…..A large “Sun” signage as well as 2 big, BOLD banners hanging on either side of the entrance promoting some act. And people….lots of people going in and out. But that will come in time.

    • Timmy

      The SUN sign is “missing” as it was not an original element and was a recent (few decades) addition both in name and signage and had no historical connection to the building. As for the banners, this is a school not a concert venue so “coming soon” signs are not needed

      • moe

        Then we need to stop calling it the Sun.
        There will be events happening there….be them school sponsored or not.

  • DanieljSTL

    Upon further review, I noticed something in the new design. Is the pattern that runs along the new awning outside, which is similar in pattern to the acoustic boards on the walls inside, a modern take on the original design work that is on the cornice of the facade? While I’m still trying to warm up to it, I like the creativity!

    • samizdat

      Thanks for pointing that out. I hadn’t noticed that detail. And I think your speculation with regards to its adaptation into further elements of design is spot on.

  • matimal

    st. louis’ rebirth is inspiring. It has lessons for many Americans as we work to do the same with our careers, finances, and communities; lessons that places like Phoenix, Austin, or Tampa can’t offer.

    • Mike

      matimal – You replied to me on another thread, located here:

      I have tried several times to reply to you but the website has either shut that page down or has decided that it is for admin only.

      I do apologize to you and would like to thank this site for allowing me to find a way to leave this message.


  • Aaron

    Wow, this is fantastic. I would have written this building off for dead 10 years ago. I’m glad someone else didn’t buy it and use the leaky roof excuse to tear it down and build parking.

  • Don

    It’s just stunning. I had an emotional reaction to the before and after.

  • pat

    What happened to the original sign? I wish they could have refurbished it.

  • raccoozie

    Looks great! Thanks for covering this. This is what St. Louis needs more of.

  • mc

    What a remarkable restoration! Thanks to all who made this possible.

  • Brian

    Great to see this. Upon first viewing, I was disappointed that the Lawrence Group did not choose to restore the theater to the way it looked in 1912. After thinking about it, however, I realized the importance of creating a space that supports the needs of its users, rather than forcing users to adapt to a sub-optimal design solely to honor a past that passed away a long time ago. (German-language productions fell out of favor in St. Louis almost immediately after the theater opened amidst the anti-Hun patriotism of the Great War.) The only way to ensure that the building becomes a vital contributor to the life of Grand Center and the larger region is to make sure it supports contemporary artistic endeavors. Otherwise it is just a bejeweled reliquary, viewed from afar by a dwindling coterie of acolytes, and ultimately starting anew the cycle of irrelevance, decay and collapse.

    • DanieljSTL

      I agree, in part, but I wish they had kept the styling a little more traditional. Something about the colors of the seats and the acoustic boards on the walls makes me think of the 1990s. Pretty tacky, in my opinion. Glad to see it in this condition, though. Much better than rubble in the back of a dump truck being hauled off to make way for a new parking lot.

      • Don

        The proverbial glass is always half empty, isn’t it?

        • DanieljSTL

          No. I’d say half full. Very happy to see it restored. I just prefer to see things done in a more period correct fashion. Rather than simply fill the glass, I say fill the glass to the top, if we want to continue the analogy. My own preference. I would rather see something done that pays a bit of homage to the original masterpiece that it was ages ago. Definitely serving a more useful purpose in its current state, even if the color scheme looks like it came off the TV set of Blossom or Saved by the Bell.

          • Jakeb

            Literally millions of dollars were spent on painstaking restorations of the original plaster work throughout the theater. Millions could have been saved by simply destroying what was left of the plasterwork and replacing it with inexpensive crown moldings and dry wall.

            The exterior of the building was also beautiful restored to it’s original grandeur. The Sun sign was added decades later from one of the many later incarnations of the theater.

            If you go to the theater and look at the details of the exterior you will see all the little theater faces on the cornice painstakingly cleaned and restored. Again, at incredible expense.

            I assume you’re ok with modern lighting, electrical and sound? modern air conditioning also? Unlike the plaster and exterior, none of this is period.

            You just don’t like the color of the seats. That’s what you see when you look at this incredible $11+ million dollar restoration of what someone rightly called a city treasure? If that’s not a glass half empty view, I don’t know what is.

            some great info on the restoration here:

        • Imran

          I don’t have anything against modern interiors for historic buildings as long as they are done well. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, the styling on the inside is ‘meh’. The stuck on boards on the side walls are tacky. You have to atleast acknowledge that. Could have put up B&W image panels of old St Louis there…. whatever. I Just can’t wax poetic about a mediocre interior redo. Its not about glasses empty or full, just design standards.

          BOTTOM LINE
          I am very glad to see this building saved and the outside looks awesome and that is what I will care about.

          • Jakeb

            Those are acoustical panels placed by the sound design engineers. They are not intended to be decorative and cannot be replaced by B&W or any other photos.

            If you study the photos above you can see that the renovation made the theater smaller with the stage facing flat walls on both levels. These flat walls without the acoustical panels would cause a horrible echo and reverb making it impossible for the audience to enjoy the performance.

            They could have chosen a difference color but I’m guessing that really wouldn’t have satisfied those who look at the incredible restoration and see only failings.

          • imran

            Didn’t mean to hurt your feelings J. Its just that we often over-celebrate mediocrity and then wonder why other places end up with higher design. The Caribbean blue interior will do just fine 🙂

          • DanieljSTL

            Agreed. Not trying to be pessimistic about this project. There are obviously a lot of strong feelings about this building. I was simply stating that I prefer period correct designs to modern ones. Just my preference. I hate to have caused such a fuss over design elements, but I love the fact that there are so many people as passionate about the restoration of our City as I.

    • Don

      When I was last in Rome, my hotel was in a 400 year old building surrounded by buildings of the same age, all re-purposed and occupied. I was thankful that the latest restoration of the building was not to original standards.

      Europe is able to save it’s ancient buildings because (aside from the fact that they are all stone built to last to the end of time or the next aerial bombardment) they allow them to be modernized and adapted to new uses on the inside.

      If we want to save what constitutes our ancient buildings, we’re going to have to lighten up a little and be practical. Aside from structural soundness and compliance with modern electrical/safety codes, etc. we shouldn’t care what happens inside the building so long as the building is saved. How many more Castle Ballrooms can we afford?

      This is a stunning restoration that saved a city treasure and I’m dumbfounded by any criticism of what was done.

    • samizdat

      A somewhat minor quibble:

      “…anti-Hun patriotism of (World War 1)…”

      What you describe as “patriotism” was actually hysterical, jingoistic nationalism. A truly patriotic response to the presence of German-descended residents and immigrants would have been to acknowledge their contributions to science, culture, the arts, industry (beer!), commerce, the built environment (our 1912 home in Dutchtown was one of approximately 4000 homes built by the combined efforts of the Degenhardt brothers), and to the survival of the Republic itself (the courageous and historically notable efforts of German immigrants in St. Louis and Missouri to keep both entities Union during the Civil War would have been obvious choices).


      While I do agree with the majority of your remarks (outside of the obvious caveats listed above), I do have some objections to some of the choices made in finishing details. Noteworthy amongst these are the bland colors used in the lobby area, which though they may be a deliberate choice utilized to contrast the muted lobby with the vibrant theater space, have rendered the egg ‘n’ dart/acanthus leaf plaster molding details almost invisible (Sadly, too, the laurel garlands were completely omitted). And while I do acknowledge that costs, durability and ease of maintenance were probably the primary considerations in choosing the boring color palate for lobby finishing, I still can’t help but ask, “How amazing would the lobby look if it were to be painted with the same attention to detail and vibrancy as the frieze and molding palate of the theater space?”

      As for the theater space itself, the color choices for the seating, wall colors (which appear to be identical to the lobby), and the acoustic panels will soon appear dated. I will, however, say this: The new design for the ceiling medallion and its attendant detailing is actually superior to the original design. Go figure.

      The fact that this building is now again in use, however, is gratifying, to say the least, and nearly trumps any misgivings I may have regarding design choices. I’m somewhat surprised at the relatively low cost for the restoration, but as the story notes, structural issues were practically non-existent. (Built like a tank indeed. I remember when the Ambassador was demo’d, and they found that the gigantic trusses used to form the auditorium and backstage area–and hold up the rest of the building [duh, what did they expect?]–were, to put it mildly, a bit of a bear to remove).