The multimillion-dollar renovation push is on at Erie’s historic Warner Theatre.
After years of delays and a recent statewide moratorium on construction because of the COVID-19 pandemic, work crews have launched into the final phase of renovations to the downtown theater, with a goal of finishing the work in September 2021.
Crews began the work in May and are now focused on demolition of the Warner’s existing stage and orchestral shell and the theater’s 75-foot-high exterior wall near East Ninth and French streets.
A new stage and customized orchestra shell will be constructed as part of the upgrades, which will increase the stage’s depth by 20 feet and create 13,750 square feet of new space overall.
The work, aimed at helping the Warner accommodate larger shows, will also rehabilitate 9,000 square feet of existing space at the theater, 811 State St., which opened on April 10, 1931 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Casey Wells, executive director of Erie Events, which manages the state-owned theater, said the organization has not adjusted its construction timetable and still hopes to reopen the theater publicly in September 2021 despite restrictions on construction put in place statewide in March because of the pandemic.
Gov. Tom Wolf lifted those restrictions on April 30. That allowed construction crews under the direction of Erie’s E.E. Austin & Son Inc. to start moving forward with the Warner work.
The company is handling construction oversight of the project. The work began on May 18; the theater has been closed since mid-March.
“The process is well underway,” Wells said this past week. “They’ve removed the stage floor and are preparing areas for new foundation and other related infrastructure. They’ve taken out pieces of the back wall to allow excavators to come in and do their work.
“Although we’ve started later, our end date is essentially the same and we’re looking to compress the schedule and conclude on the date we originally set,” Wells said.
“We’re still looking at about 18 months of construction, and I think we have a sense of urgency to catch up for lost time, and get this finished on time and on budget.”
“A unique challenge”
Steve Morvay, an E.E. Austin vice president and construction manager of the Warner project, said preliminary work such as utility disconnections began in May to prepare for demolition and more extensive construction.
Morvay said he remains optimistic the work can be completed in time for a fall 2021 reopening.
“Right now a lot of things are on the table, whether it be extra shifts or overtime,” Morvay said. “It’s a continual process in working with the other contractors to figure out how we can work best to get some time back. There’s no one silver bullet that’s going to get us caught up. It’s a number of things.”
Morvay said at least 15 workers are on site at any given time, and work will soon begin on Saturdays, which will mean construction will be happening six days a week.
“We don’t know what will happen with COVID-19 in six months. We don’t know what the weather will be like in six months or eight months,” Morvay said. “But our goal is to get this completed on the original timetable.”
Morvay said as part of the project, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, electrical equipment and other infrastructure that dates to the 1930s is being gutted or replaced.
“We have some plans back from 1931, but they don’t show everything. It’s interesting and a unique challenge,” Morvay said.
The renovations were designed by Chicago-based Coffey Group Architecture, which has extensive experience restoring older theaters, and the work is fueled by a $16.5 million state grant.
The theater upgrades include a new marquee at the theater’s State Street entrance that replicates the Warner’s original marquee and incorporates many of its original elements, including stained glass, as well as an enclosed walkway and outdoor video screen that each would be affixed to the theater along French Street.
The enclosed walkway will extend from the Warner’s second-floor lobby along French Street to the new orchestral practice and event space.
The renovations will also add new rigging, an updated sound system, new loading docks and additional production equipment.
In the works for more than two decades, the Warner project has seen a series of delays, including a complicated property arrangement involving land near the Warner needed to expand the stage. That deal took more than 15 years to negotiate.
More recently, the project had to close a $10 million funding shortfall.
The Erie County Convention Center Authority, which oversees Erie Events, in February signed off on borrowing $6 million from First National Bank.
In addition, Eriez Manufacturing agreed to contribute $1 million to the Warner project, Erie billionaire Tom Hagen will contribute $1.5 million and Erie Insurance will donate $500,000.
Erie Events plans to raise an additional $1 million to $2 million as the project moves forward.
In earlier interviews, Daniel P. Coffey, of Coffey Group Architecture, said the upgrades preserve the theater’s historic feel and enhance the city’s downtown entertainment and cultural district, which also includes Erie Insurance Arena and UPMC Park.
Earlier phases of Warner Theatre upgrades completed over several years have included new seats; a new roof; interior decorative painting; additional restrooms and concession areas, and a new entrance and electronic marquee off French Street.
Those upgrades were paid for via tax dollars and private donations.