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After 20 silent years, life returns to the Peabody Opera House

The lobby of the Stifel Theatre, shown in June 2011.
File photo | Provided | Tom Paule Photography
The Grand Lobby of the Peabody Opera House in June 2011. The venue reopens on October 1 after 20 silent years and a 14-month renovation.

On May 3, 1991, the musicians of the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra played the last notes of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, to bring down the curtain at the Kiel Opera House. For 20 years, the massive structure at the corner of Market and 14th Streets sat vacant, as group after group proposed unsuccessful redevelopment plans.

Tomorrow night, the curtain will rise again as Jay Leno and Aretha Franklin headline the first show on the stage of the venue now known as the Peabody Opera House.


For 15 years, the Kiel Opera House was Fred Corsi's obsession.

"I'd wake up in the middle of the night thinking about that place," says Corsi, who's now the  executive director of operations at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona. "It was like the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head. I always thought, one day I'm going to walk in and the roof is going to cave in, or there's going be a fire, or something bad is going to happen to that place."

From 1993 to 2008, Corsi and his colleague, Dennis Petrullo, were charged with keeping the shuttered opera house as intact as possible. With a budget of about $60,000, the two men kept water and electricity running to the building, paid for 24-hour security patrols, and made emergency roof repairs.

"The relief of my understanding that that building is going to be opened up as a viable operational facility makes me feel a lot better about the 15 years I worked at that place," Corsi says.

"We wouldn't be here without the way those guys took care of it," says Mike McCarthy, the president and CEO of the newly-renamed Peabody Opera House. "We owe them a big debt." He's standing in the gleaming hallways of the venue just two week away from the grand re-opening - a night many thought would never come.

"I don't know what it would cost to build it from scratch, the way it's presented today," McCarthy says, "but it wouldn't have the history or the elegance because you can feel the ghosts in here. That makes for a completely different experience."

A massive project, inside and out

The renovation took about 1,300 craftsmen 14 months to complete. The exterior of the building was cleaned and re-tuckpointed, and the stairs were resurfaced. There's a brand new entrance on the 14th Street side, complete with two new limestone bears that echo the ones standing guard on Market Street. The project also includes a complete re-landscaping of Schuller Park, a block of green space that sits across Market St. from the Opera House's main entrance. It will house a skating rink in the winter.

Inside, the historic paint scheme, gold leaf, Dutch bronze, marble floors and plaster had to be cleaned and sometimes completely redone, as did hundreds of light fixtures. Modern infrastructure like sprinklers, high-speed Internet and phone lines, had to be installed and then made invisible. The entire building was rewired. Crews installed a new sound system, a brand new loading dock with two new elevators, all-new rigging for the stage, and 3,000 new seats.

"Look at these stairs," says Mike McCarthy as he leads a group up from the main lobby. "They look like they have a sheet of ice on them, and there's just restored, the original steps. It's one of my favorite features. Look how spectacular they look."

All told, the project cost $74 million, financed by a combination of bonds, private equity, and state and federal tax credits. (Keith Wolcoff, the project manager, says the cost could have been millions more if not for the work of Fred Corsi and Dennis Petrullo.) Tight credit markets delayed the start of construction by nearly a year, but alderwoman Phyllis Young, whose 7th Ward includes the Peabody, says it could have lasted longer.

"The fact that you had a developer in partnership with someone who had a company that could bring in programming for a space was important," she says. "It wouldn't do any good to have development occur and then have it not been an active space."

Opera House staff say they're well on their way to booking 100 shows in the venue's first year. Highlights include Wilco and the Green Day musical "American Idiot."

A centerpiece of downtown

The re-opening of the Peabody is crucial to the ongoing rebirth of downtown, says Young. It will make vacant commercial and restaurant space more attractive to developers by providing a more steady stream of customers.

Chris McKee, a partner in the project, shares that sentiment.

"The corner of 14th and Market is really like Main and Main," he says. "And it was dark. You come down here now, and we're not even open yet, and it's already ten times better than it used to be with just the light and the streetlights. We need the economy to recover, we still need people to go back to work, but ultimately, we see the Opera House as being key to downtown development."

Chris and his brother Joe say everyone who came into the Peabody during construction, from tour groups to workers, was excited about the venue coming back to life. They all had stories about the building, says Joe, and it made being part of the project "humbling."

"We felt that we were very much just stewards of something that isn't ours, that we're just caretakers in a way," Joe McKee says. "We tried as best we could to do the right thing. To think that we might add something to the fabric of our city that's been missing in a time where it could make a difference is kind of cool."

Online Extra:

  • Hear Gary Behm, the president of St. Louis Antique Lighting, describe the work his company did to restore more than 100 light fixtures from the Peabody Opera House:



Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.