Tennessee Theatre expanding with $2.4M purchase in downtown Knoxville building

When the curtains are drawn and the spotlight shines at the Tennessee Theatre, the audience experience is "superlative," said Becky Hancock, executive director of the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation.

But the moments before and after the show don't always live up to the same hype. Restrooms are limited, and the lobby can become quite crowded, she said.

The foundation plans to expand and address these concerns following last week's $2.4 million purchase of four floors within the nearby Mechanics Bank and Trust building at 612 S. Gay St.

"We can use the space that we have and the various spaces that this property will have to help enhance and elevate our programming and audience (experience)," Hancock said.

Looking to 'solve some problems'

Hancock said the foundation has been looking at making this expansion for the past year, as limitations within the current space have become more prevalent.

The theater was designed to show movies, she said, with people going in and out of the building quite frequently. The current, often-crowded lobby wasn't always used to the extent it is now.

The lobby and foyers are now being used for selling concessions, gathering before and after shows, and hosting events for user groups, such as theater sponsors and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.

"Any time a piece of property nearby comes up, it's a good idea to see if you can make it work to solve some problems," Hancock said. "That's all we've been focused on — securing the property before someone else bought it."

The $2.4 million purchase includes 80 percent of the building — a ground-level floor with a mezzanine and three floors above it. The purchase was made using donations and reserve cash, she said.

Potential plans for the space

The ground level is roughly 5,500 square feet, and each successive floor is around 3,600. The Mechanics building is not connected to the theater — one building sits between the two.

The ground floor currently houses the Toppenberg Law Firm, from which the foundation purchased its portion of the building. The three floors above are "completely gutted," Hancock said, and will require substantial renovations to be made usable by the public.

The ground level, however, could be used in the near future as a reception space before the other floors are ready, Hancock said. Plans are not finalized, and the space would likely have to close down at some point for renovations to be completed within the building.

Hancock said a timeline for renovations won't be known for weeks, as she has not yet put together a committee to look at potential uses for the space. The uses could be as simple as a reception space and extra restrooms, she said.

The need for a free-flowing gathering space was brought to the foundation's attention by the theater's users in 2005 during a renovation period. The foundation was unable to immediately address the issues.

"We just celebrated our 90-year anniversary, and we are seeing more and more attendees each year so that we are often victims of our own success," Hancock said. "This should help meet the needs and expectations contemporary audiences have."

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Ryan Wilusz

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Published January 11, 2019