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"Great Gatsby meets modern times" as Waldron Arts Center is getting a makeover

A Constellation sign adorns the exterior of the John Waldron Arts Center

(Devan Ridgway/WTIU)

While construction is ongoing in the basement and the main floor of the Waldron Arts Center, David Wade is splattering paint all around the stage in the Lind and and John Whikehart Auditorium upstairs.

“We’re getting ready to install ‘The Importance of Being Ernest,’ which is the second show of the season, and today is painting the floor,” Wade said. “Lots of paint.”

Wade is the charge artist for Constellation Stage and Screen. The Bloomington production company signed a five-year lease with the city earlier this year to run the building.

And while Wade and others are readying the auditorium with new flooring, lighting and seating, there’s plenty of work going on downstairs on the main level. A big change will be a large reception area.

“This is going to be a really great experience for the audiences to come in and have the luxury of having a second space to be in other than just the house of the theater,” Wade said. “Yeah, it’s going to be nice.”

Constellation is the latest tenant in the building, which was built in 1915 to house City Hall and the fire department. In 1964, the city offices moved out and the Bloomington police department moved in. BPD remained in the building until 1985, and the property was deeded to the Bloomington Arts Council in 1990. That year, it was renamed the John Waldron Arts Center.

An artist's rendering of the entry to the John Waldron Arts Center

The space was used for galleries, classrooms, performances and offices until 2010, when Ivy Tech took over and used it as an educational institution. Last year, Ivy Tech returned the building to the city.

The city decided to keep it an arts facility and this summer sank a half-million dollars in structural repairs and a new H-VAC system into the Waldron. In July, it was leased to Constellation.

“We took care of repairing the guts of the building, and Constellation is bringing the bling,” said Holly Warren, Bloomington’s assistant director for the arts.

Constellation Stage and Screen was formed when Bloomington Playwright’s Project, Cardinal Stage and Pigasus Institute merged in July.

“This group really just has that expertise to say, ‘hey, we know that a theater patron needs to be able to come into this space, and not just see performance, but like actually enjoy the performance,’” Warren said.

Constellation contracted with Third Eye Design and Rubicon Construction to bring that bling.

An artist's rendering of the reception area on the main floor of the John Waldron Arts Center

The new lobby and reception area, ticket office and staircase are the vision of Third Eye’s Ally Powell. She said they spent several days walking through the building to get an idea of what they wanted to create in the renovation.

“How do we complement this architecture of the building, but also make it feel fresh and bring young faces to the theater again? And we thought, ‘Great Gatsby’ meets modern times, kind of fuse them together,” Powell said.

But before her vision could come to life, the century-old structure required a fair amount of cosmetic work – taking out a beam, shoring up the frame, masonry work. She also had to contend with a large safe.

“Well, you can see this is the old bank, one of the old bank vault doors,” Powell said. “So, this was a very difficult piece to blow out. We weren’t even sure we were gonna be able to do it without compromising the integrity of the building.”

New framing inside what will be a reception area in the John Waldron Arts Center

Powell has plans for where the safe stood.

“We have this art deco custom box office coming,” Powell said. “That’s going to be a major architectural feature that we spent like six months designing and building, and I’m really excited about that.”

The main reception area will be in what was once the mayor’s office.

“And what’s really cool is there was this glass window that still said ‘Mayor’s Office’ on it from when it originally was,” Powell said. “I’m going to try to incorporate that in the design somewhere.”

The other part of the initial renovation project is downstairs where the old firehouse is being transformed into the Fire Bay Theater.

“I’ve had people stop by and kind of give me the history and what they knew about it from showing me where they used to hand the old canvas fire line so they could dry out between runs and about the cisterns that are under the floor,” said Kevin Powell, one of the co-owners of Rubicon Construction.

Renovation of the old firehouse into the Firehouse Bay Theater continues at the John Waldron Arts Center

The firehouse bay is getting improved flooring, new lighting and an audio system.

Back upstairs in the auditorium, Wade is going about his business, splattering green paint on the floor to look like grass.

When the two theaters in the Waldron are in use, they will join the Ted Jones Playhouse and the Buskirk-Chumley Theater as local venues for performances.

“For theater artists like myself, this is great to have a space to do this kind of stuff,” Wade said. “And, you know, different venues to play in is very fun.”

That fun is scheduled to begin next month, when “The Importance of Being Earnest” will be the first new production in the renovated building. It’s scheduled to begin its run Oct. 13. 

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