For decades, the performance hall at 3940 Thalia St. had faded into the background of the busy Broad Street corridor which runs beside it.
Designed in 1947 by architecture firm Dreyfous and Seiferth (Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth until 1940), the once-glimmering Gem Theater’s Art Deco-inspired façade was hidden beneath a thick layer of grime.
Beginning in about 1952, movies, music, singing, comedy and other performances there were attended by mostly African-American audiences. A regional theater developer based in Memphis built the Gem intending to attract customers who lived in Calliope/B.W. Cooper public housing development a block away.Its legacy as an entertainment venue was short lived; it closed it in 1960.
The building was then converted into an auto parts store, its entry re-oriented onto S. Broad Street. Commercial doors were built in front of the old Thalia Street vestibule entry.
Decades later, fearing that its significance would be forgotten, local historians Jack Stewart and Rene Brunet suggested it for local historic designation. In 2009, the City of New Orleans acknowledged the Gem Theater as a cultural and social landmark.
Last year, when the vacant building was made available for sale, innovative real estate developer Greg Ensslen took notice. The theater’s original cement panel roof was leaking, and floodwaters had damaged the interior during Hurricane Katrina. But Ensslen knew it could be fixed — he and his partners helped begin the revitalization of Freret Street more than a decade ago.
Ensslen recalled, “The same morning that my real estate advisor told me this building was on the market, I went and walked the site immediately. A few hours later a partner called to see if I could help find a building suitable for one of his bar managers to open a brewery.
“We quickly realized the Gem was a match in square footage and other features to suit the brewer’s operations. We were able to customize the interior for our tenant, right from the start.”
The original stage and the dressing rooms flanking it (now converted into employee bathrooms) are retained in the beer production facility, where long-gone theater seats once sat on gradually sloping slab floor (rebuilt after it partly collapsed due to differential settlement). Plaster pilasters mark the slight, incremental height reduction along the 22-foot-tall ceiling as it recedes back from the stage, built to enable sound travel.
Ensslen formed a partnership with his company, Go Mango, and others to purchase the building and plan the extensive repairs. The group submitted a nomination for the building to be named to the National Register of Historic Places.
The work done to improve the building qualifies for rehabilitation tax credits. Plaster wainscoting was restored and multi-light, fixed metal windows were repaired. Graffiti was removed from brick using a process approved by the National Park Service, the agency responsible for approving tax credit work.
Wayward Owl brewing company owner Justin Boswell designed the beer production facility, which includes a tasting room open to the public.
When the streamlined aluminum theater marquee was fixed, neon letters missing for decades were replaced with replicas. “The color for the letters was determined by the memories of community members,” says Ensslen. “They remembered the front from coming to the Gem in the 1950s, which helped, since the only remaining photo of the façade is black and white.”
Match for coming attractions: Wayward Owl will use the old movie poster boxes under the marquee to announce daily specials and new brews. –Maryann Miller