SUPERIOR — Armed with flashlights and curiosity, a small group toured the former Princess Theater space at 1310 Tower Ave. Tuesday, Sept. 6. They draw back the curtain to better visualize what the theater, which opened in 1914, might have looked like, and what it could be again.
The group — including historic preservation committee members Brian Finstad and Kathy Laakso — struck history gold in the upper floor of the building. A plaster lion roared from the center medallion of the intricately decorated proscenium arch. Images of fruits, leaves and scrollwork traveled the width of the ceiling.
Plaster trim, festoons and ornate light fixtures gave hints at the theater’s gilded past. Ticket stubs, letters, and an empty box for blued tacks provided a handheld glimpse of yesterday.
Beneath flaking gray paint, the detectives discovered clues to what may have been the theater’s original color scheme — gold, cream, sky blue, perhaps some red. A purple velvet curtain valance hung over what would have been the stage area.
“I never dreamed this much would be here,” Finstad said. “I just really thought it was just all gutted.”
“How did it survive?” asked local historian Teddie Meronek, another member of the group.
“In some ways we kind of luck out that … their renovations were so haphazard that they didn’t try and completely tear out everything,” said Jeff Skrenes, Superior Housing coordinator and planner.
Douglas County transferred the building, which most recently served as Frankie’s Tavern, to the city in June. City officials plan to renovate the building into a working theater using money set aside for historic preservation from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Six dumpsters full of garbage and debris have been hauled from the vacant building since the city acquired it, according to Skrenes. He’s walked through the site several times, but found it hard to notice many details when wading through piles of detritus.
“When it’s kind of packed to the gills with all these other things, it kind of takes focus away. It was interesting — as soon as those things were gone we were like, ‘Holy cow, look at that,’” Skrenes said.
The group’s findings gave Finstad hope that exterior details could be hiding behind the current bumped-out facade of the building.
“I think they took off the cornice and then they just put a skin right over the top of it. I think you’ll peel it off and the Princess is still there,” he said.
“I hope so,” Meronek said.
Clearing the debris also cleared the air.
“Initially when we acquired it, we thought we were gonna have to do a significant amount of mold remediation because it was literally that difficult to breathe,” Skrenes said.
Once the old documents, furniture and other items were removed, all that remained was a “kind of older building mucky smell,” Skrenes said. “At this point, we’re not anticipating significant mold remediation.”
A report on asbestos testing for the building, which landed on Skrenes desk last week, is one of the final pieces needed before the city can solicit bids for the building design. Restoration or renovation is a question that has yet to be answered. The historical details discovered in the building may help officials decide.
“I honestly think what we’re finding is more than they originally thought was there,” Finstad said. “I think there’s enough that, if you had the money and you want to go there, you can replicate everything. I mean, we know the curtain color. We know the wall color …”
The finds piled up, while some spaces remained a mystery. An upper loft with wooden shelves and a door — possibly the projection booth — was unreachable. The outline of stairs long gone could be seen on the wall beneath it. A broken ladder descended into the dark basement, unnavigable.
“We have three rooms, or … spaces that we haven’t even accessed yet to see what remains from there and what other clues we can find that will tell us more about what we can restore,” Skrenes said. “Figuring out how to safely get at those is going to be one of the next steps, too.”
Laakso said sharing the details that have been uncovered and the progress that has been made on the building could pique community interest and support.
“I would like to see the grassroots part of — I always call it — a three-legged stool. That passionate bunch of people who are raising money and doing fundraisers. That’s the way it was done in the past,” she said.
In addition to giving the visitors a glimpse of the past, the tour offered inspiration for the future. A day later, they sent pictures and messages to each other filled with plans and ideas. They discussed everything from a new musical and a brochure to a social media blitz.
“Kathy is right when she says that everyone in the community has to be involved to make this a success,” Meronek said.
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