CHAMPAIGN — Renovators think visitors to the Virginia Theatre are in for a big surprise when the doors reopen just in time for Ebertfest this spring.
Where to begin? Start from the top: Workers recently uncovered original canvas paintings on the auditorium ceiling depicting Spanish shields and characters, consistent with the overall Spanish design of the theater.
The ceiling canvases alone were a great surprise, said Champaign Park District Executive Director Bobbie Herakovich. But those are just a complement to the auditorium overhaul, a project approaching $5.5 million for which park district officials are asking for more donations.
That is the bill for the third phase of the ongoing Virginia Theatre renovation — the total cost of the project is approaching $7.5 million. Funding has come from donations including a $1 million contribution from the estate of Michael Carragher, a $500,000 grant and tax revenue.
"We didn't anticipate the magnitude and the added expenses, but there have been some really crazy awesome discoveries as well," Herakovich said.
Going into the project, workers had no idea the canvases existed under the paint on the dull ceiling, around each of the two light fixtures on either side of the dome.
"We didn't know," Herakovich said. "We just thought (the ceiling) was garish and ugly and smoke-covered."
At a cost of $73,000 and one of the reasons officials are asking for donations, painters are now working to restore those canvases. They are believed to be original to the 91-year-old theater, and the paintings will return to a fully-restored ceiling soon.
Geoffrey Steward, who is leading the paint restoration as CEO and managing director of International Fine Art Conservation Studios, said he does not know who originally made the paintings. In 1921, artists often traveled around the country working on different projects, as restoration teams like his do today.
The entire auditorium is getting a new paint job. Steward said his team did a "full color study" to determine the theater's original palette. Artists are now restoring it to its original appearance, which included bold blues, reds and blacks and golden details, as well as fairly elaborate stenciling stretching around the dome.
Painters are detailing the proscenium — the piece that frames the stage — with 24-karat gold leaf, another original feature.
"The ceiling was far more highly decorated than we thought before," Steward said.
While the ceiling might be one of the more stunning features of the theater, the bulk of the work is taking place underneath it. All of the chairs have been removed from the theater — the old, maroon seats will be replaced with wider red-and-black chairs.
Some areas of the concrete floor were patched, but the overall integrity of the concrete was found to be in very good condition — far better even than today's building codes demand, Herakovich said.
Workers are also adding features to bring the theater in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. An elevator has been added to the west side of the building, and upgrades to the main floor will make the theater accessible to people in wheelchairs.
"The main auditorium will be accessible to wheelchairs, and it will have actual platform places so a person in a wheelchair can sit with a companion and not just be relegated to the first row," Herakovich said.
Stage electronics are getting upgrades, and workers are finishing the entire backstage area. An area where there used to be stone walls and exposed pipes will now be more accommodating to the likes of Alison Krauss and Roger Ebert.
Officials hope that will make the theater more competitive when performers are scheduling their events.
"The more opportunities we can provide for the performers, the more accommodations we can provide, the more people are interested in your theater," Herakovich said.
Donations are still needed to take care of some business that will be left unfinished when the theater reopens just before Ebertfest. Officials still need to purchase an expensive digital projector within the next year or so, and they still need to pay for lighting and sound equipment.
Steward said theater projects his company has worked on in other cities have proven to be a boon to their downtowns. Bigger acts can bring bigger crowds, which means more money for hotels and restaurants in the immediate area.
Herakovich said a renovated Virginia Theatre will act as a draw for crowds numbering in the hundreds, which is an attraction that downtown Champaign lacks while the theater is closed.
"We don't have an anchor store in downtown," she said. "But we have an anchor theater."