Frank O'Brien has an ambitious goal for the Capitol Theatre: Return the historic downtown venue's appearance to the way it looked on the night it first opened its doors in 1928.
An approximately $400,000 facade renovation is underway at the theater that is expected to take four or five months to complete, according to O'Brien, executive director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which owns the venue. The project involves extensive cleaning, stabilization and repointing of the building's terra cotta exterior, which has cracked in places, and even recasting some broken pieces.
Last summer, the CVB replaced every seat in the Capitol, installed new carpeting throughout and upgraded the sound and light projections systems, funded in large part with private donations. That, O'Brien said, made the facade upgrades even more important to complete.
"This is a huge project for the theater. ... We made $1 million worth of interior upgrades, and you've got to protect all of that," O'Brien said. "Our goal is to return it to the day it was built."
In 2010, the National Park Service awarded the theater a Save America's Treasures grant to cover about $200,000 of the total cost - one of the last projects to receive funding before the federal government cut the program. The remaining $200,000 will come from the city's 2011 tax increment financing bond issue.
O'Brien acknowledged some have criticized the use of taxpayer funds in rejuvenating the Capitol, but he believes it has been worth it, with an average of 57,000 people per year visiting the theater since it reopened in the fall of 2009 after being closed for more than two years due to code violations.
"It's a good investment because people are coming to downtown Wheeling during shows. They're not only buying tickets, but they're eating in restaurants ... ," O'Brien said. "They are stimulating the economy in a positive way."
The theater will remain open while the renovation is taking place. The bulk of the work will take place during summer, which is typically the theater's slowest period, as many events are held outdoors.
O'Brien said the work should have minimal impact on patron experience, as workers will wrap up for the day well before any shows begin. He said despite outward appearances, the building will remain fully accessible.
"It's a concern, and we'll do everything we can to mitigate that," O'Brien said. "Pardon our mess, but the show's great inside."
Upcoming shows at the Capitol include the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra performing the music of ABBA on Friday, and the Sheer Talent Dance Competition featuring Abby Lee and the Cast of "Dance Moms" on May 3.