By JULIA MILLER
Biloxi is hoping to give its downtown area a facelift, and it’s starting by restoring Saenger Theatre and Community Center to its former glory.
Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich believes this project will be an economic boon to the area.
He is so passionate about the project that he even held his recent swearing-in at the theater to showcase it’s beauty.
“The inside is incredible,” he said. “The acoustics are unbelievable.”
Built in 1929, the Saenger points to the art deco and old world elegance indicative of the Roaring ‘20s. In the first part of the 20th Century, the Saenger Amusement Company built several new “movie palaces” to accommodate the new “talking pictures,” as well as vaudeville and other types of live stage performances.
The original interior decoration and the backstage facilities are still mostly intact..
“(Saenger theaters) all had ornate features making a visit to the theater a grand experience,” said Leigh Jaunsen of Dale Partners Architects P.A.
The City of Biloxi acquired the facility in 1975 to use as a performing arts center.
“One of the wonderful aspects of the building is that it continues to serve the cultural needs of the city and the Coast — just as it has since its opening in 1929,” said Kenneth P’Pool, deputy state historic preservation officer with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
The project is expected to take between two and four years, depending upon funding. The first phase will include repair of the exterior of the building, including the walls, the roof and the rooftop mechanical units.
MDAH has awarded a $100,000 grant from the Mississippi Community Heritage Preservation Grant Program to assist the roof replacement. Based on an MDAH report, the anticipated cost for the exterior repairs is expected to be approximately $1.5 million.
“We all look forward to completion of the repairs that will return the old Saenger Theatre to its original glory,” P’Pool said.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Saenger is that it has remained intact through both manmade and natural disasters that have destroyed much of the downtown historic area.
“It’s a survivor, almost like the pyramids of Giza,” Gilich said.
With its longevity comes an emotional attachment for many area natives.
“Generations of Biloxians have grown up with this theater being an anchor for downtown and many have fond memories of attending events in there,” Jaunsen said. “This project will help restore this anchor to its original grandeur and continue to create memories for many generations, providing a continuity of experiences for the community.”
Gilich hopes the Saenger restoration is just one part of a move away from the urban renewal project the City underwent to move to a pedestrian-only traffic pattern. The city’s five-year action plan to restore the historic downtown district includes a return to two-way traffic to Howard Avenue and retiring the name “Vieux Marche.”
“I’ve only been mayor for two years, but I’ve been in Biloxi my whole life,” Gilich said. “(The Saenger project) sits right at the precipice of what we need to do.”
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