Theatre Knoxville Downtown Announces Move to 800 South Central Street

Night Rendering of Outside of Building, 800 South Central Street, Knoxville
Rendering of Outside of Building, 800 South Central Street, Knoxville

It’s been over a year-and-a-half since Theatre Knoxville Downtown announced its intentions to move. The working idea at the time included relocating to 213 E. Fifth Avenue, the site of Carmichael Automotive Repair. The group had clearly outgrown the roughly 50 seats at 319 N. Gay Street and, with the help of the East Tennessee Community Design Center, plans were drawn to fit the Theatre into that building.

They began a fundraiser which raised a substantial sum, but did not approach the money needed for the plans at the East Fifth Avenue location. Bonny Pendleton, president of the Board of Directors of the theatre, told me that even a minimal plan, which basically included nothing more than building bathrooms in addition to required code-related work would have cost three times what the group had on hand. If they executed the plan as drawn, it would have cost five times what they had raised.

Romanian Church, Central Street, Downtown Knoxville, December 2011

The group returned to the search and realtor John Lyle of Coldwell Banker, who has helped them throughout the process, found a location that they’ll be able to make functional for a much smaller amount of money. The former Romanian Church at 800 South Central may seem an unlikely spot and building for a theatre, but if you consider the proximity to the Theatre District (it’s two blocks from the Bijou) and the interior of a church, it makes more sense.

The former church, which Bonny says was built in the 1950s, once served the Holston Conference of United Methodists and hasn’t hosted a congregation in number of years. When I first photographed it in 2011, it was already seemingly long abandoned. New owners, brother and sister, Stephanie and Russell Balest, have worked closely with Theatre Knoxville Downtown, to formulate plans which will accommodate their needs while keeping the budget in mind. They have extended the first three months’ rent free while construction is underway.

Aerial Photograph of Site, 800 South Central Street, Knoxville

The building is solid concrete, with concrete block walls and cast concrete floors and ceilings. As such, it is in good shape, for the most part. The roof will be replaced, as well as downspouts. The interior already includes a small stage, which will be expanded, and the pews are still in place and will be used for seating, doubling the capacity from around 50 to around 100. It’s a huge difference in potential ticket revenue.

The owners have applied for a facade grant, though that remains uncertain. The renderings you see pictured here include improvements to the facade, which were approved yesterday at the Downtown Design Review Board meeting. The building is currently zoned C-3, whereas most downtown buildings are zoned C-2. The primary difference between the two is that C-3 carries with it a requirement to provide parking, whereas C-2 does not. The city has provided a hardship waiver, for now, so construction can proceed while the process is underway to change the zoning.

Interior Rendering, 800 South Central Street, Knoxville

Dollar and Ewers are working with the owners of the building to make the exterior modifications, which will include additions to the facade to make it “warmer.” Religious symbols will be removed, windows will be re-glazed and the doors will be replaced. The sidewalks and walkways in front of the building will be replaced by a small plaza.

Steve James with Ghost Riders Metal Works is doing the interior. In addition to expanding the stage, lighting will be installed in a space already built-out over the entrance. Bonny joked that only short people will be able to work the lighting as no one of normal height could stand in the space. The one-story building has a full, finished basement of equal size to the main floor. While their current location has about 2000 square feet, the new location has near 2500 on each level.

Night Rendering of Outside of Building, 800 South Central Street, Knoxville

ADA compliant bathrooms will have to be added, as will a second emergency exit on the side, involving an exterior stairwell and a set of metal double doors leading out of the basement. The exits will constitute about half the full budget.

The group is estimating three months for construction and they plan to conclude the current season in their new home. Having always operated in the black, they are searching for corporate sponsors to help them make this financial transition while remaining on solid financial ground.