Restoring Laconia’s Historic Colonial Theater

A much-loved historic landmark of the Lakes Region is undergoing a renovation and restoration that will return it to its former grandeur, as well as create a venue for civic and professional performances, cultural arts, and a wide variety of community events. The revitalized Colonial Theater in Laconia will be a civic auditorium, and one of the largest indoor performing arts stages in NH, generating jobs and providing economic stability for many years to come.

The Colonial Theater, built by Benjamin Piscopo in 1913 and opened in 1914, was one of the grandest vaudeville and movie houses in New England. As motion pictures overtook live performances in the years following the First World War, the theater became a cinema. In the 1980s, the ornate auditorium was divided into a multiplex cinema with five screens. In 2001, the theater closed after 87 years.

Recognizing that the Colonial was a significant part of Laconia history and a key to the revitalization of the downtown, many organizations attempted to purchase the property. Success with the idea came two years ago, when the City of Laconia, in partnership with the Belknap Economic Development Council (Belknap EDC), arranged a financial package of $15 million to acquire and renovate the Colonial Theater along with the commercial and residential units on the lot at 609-621 Main St.

The Belknap EDC subsidiary, 609 Main Street, LLC, then began a public fundraising campaign to help bridge the gap with the extensive costs of restoring the Colonial. The organization has raised $1.5 million so far, and Mill Falls at the Lake is proud to be one of the supporters of the project. Understanding the importance of a solid community infrastructure that offers both business and cultural opportunities, Rusty McLear, President and CEO of Mill Falls at the Lake, presented a check for $100,000 toward the Colonial Theater capital campaign last September.

“We are proud to donate to the Colonial Theater project and look forward to watching the progress over the next year to bring this theater back to the majestic beauty it once was,” stated McLear.

The project recently got approval from the city Planning Board for its site plan, and the Colonial has entered its first phase of rehabilitation, beginning with the demolition of the movie cinema partitions that were installed in the 1980s. In addition to bringing back some of the “magic” of the original theater, architect Rob Turpin hopes to create a fun destination and foster downtown development.

“We want people to have a great time here,” Turpin said. “Obviously, with the theater being restored, we’ll bring back a lot of the grandeur, but beyond that we want to make sure their experiences here are fabulous. If they see and appreciate the level of detail with the revitalization work, that’s icing on the cake.”

The work to refurbish the theater, 14 apartments, and four commercial units is slated to begin in late spring or early summer and is expected to take about a year. Since the theater hasn’t been used in years, major work will be needed on electrical, plumbing, and heat and air systems. The theater originally opened with 1,400 seats, but after the restoration it will have 750 seats, including 300 in the balcony, as modern standards require wider seats and aisles.

In an effort to restore the theater in a historically accurate way, Turpin’s architecture firm has collected old photographs and interviewed people with knowledge of its history. Turpin has also studied similar restoration projects, including the 1924 Colonial Theatre in Keene, the 1915 Palace Theatre in Manchester, and the 1878 Music Hall in Portsmouth.

Fundraising efforts continue. “Since the start of the capital campaign, we have received an outpouring of support from businesses and residents in the Lakes Region,” said Justin Slattery, Executive Director of the Belknap EDC.  “We are making good progress and ask that any business or resident interested in learning more about the Colonial Theater capital campaign contact us at 603-524-3057 or”

Carrie Reed
The Mill Falls Blogging Team


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