Orpheum Theater to get terra cotta facelift

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June 18, 2002 // UPDATED 1:25 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Kevin Featherly
Kevin Featherly

The Orpheum Theater, 901 Hennepin Ave. S., soon will get a $401,000 taxpayer-funded facelift, the kind that is designed to pass unnoticed.

The Minneapolis City Council agreed June 21 to spend the money to restore the historic Downtown theater's exterior terra cotta and shore up some of its brickwork.

However, Minneapolis Community Development Agency project coordinator Wayne Olson said the fixer-upper won't be particularly noticeable. "The public may not see too much in terms of looking at the building and say, 'What did they do?'" he said. "We're hitting the basics on this one."

Olson said the project is important because it will preserve much of the publicly owned theater's original architecture. The Orpheum's terra cotta was hung before the theater's 1921 opening -- when the Marx Brothers christened the stage with their vaudeville act.

The terra cotta repairs will be good for about 75 years, Olson said, while accompanying brick tuck-pointing should keep the exterior structure sound for 30 or 40 years.

Olson said the faade -- made of heavy chunks of hard, ceramic clay hung on heavy iron bars -- has deteriorated. The city considered replacing sections that couldn't be repaired with cheaper substitutes such as plastic or stone, but decided to go with the original material, Olson said.

Some terra cotta fixtures will be repaired on-site, Olson said. Those that can't will be transported to a plant in California, where moldings will be made and replacement pieces produced. They will then be shipped back to Minneapolis.

Some of the ceramic chunks are as small as bricks, and weigh about as much, but two decorative terra-cotta urns weigh about a ton, Olson said.

Olson said other more aesthetic renovations are being put on hold because of budget constraints. For instance, a rail balustrade that originally graced the building above the marquee has long been missing, and the MCDA wants to replace it -- but not this year, Olson said.

Olson acknowledges that fixing up historic buildings like the Orpheum can be costly, but it's worth it.

"I use the metaphor of an old car," he said, "because when you buy it, you know there's going to be problems. But it's a ton of fun to own."

The project, once approved by the mayor, should begin in early July, Olson said. Depending on the weather, it could continue until next spring.