The Hippo


Jun 3, 2020








The Colonial Theatre. Courtesy photo.

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Community theater
Push continues for Colonial Theatre revitalization

By Kelly Sennott

 Most people involved with the Colonial Theatre block development project in downtown Laconia are locals, from the engineering consultants to the construction manager. Architects Rob Turpin and Sonya Misiaszek can see the 102-year-old theater from their office window.

“It’s been wonderful to have this core group of local people working on the project,” Misiaszek said via phone.
This focused effort is a promising sign for David Bownes, a local attorney, city councilor and self-described theater geek who can remember seeing films like The Ten Commandments at the Colonial Theatre as a kid. 
“That building has been the elephant in downtown Laconia for years,” Bownes, who lives about five minutes from downtown, said via phone. “It wasn’t producing anything. The building was starting to show its age.”
The restoration project began in the summer of 2015, when the City of Laconia loaned the Belknap Economic Development Council $1.4 million to buy the theater, with the goal of restoring it to be as financially stable and practical as it was when it opened in 1914. 
“What’s going to make this successful is that the city has bought into it 100 percent,” Bownes said. 
BEDC has since been deep in planning, with the goal of raising the required $14.5 million to renovate the whole block (which also includes apartments and retail space) before construction begins sometime in 2017. 
Progress remains steady, and the website,, chronicles the most recent project breakthroughs — mostly financial, including tax credits, donations and grants. This past December the biggest was a $500,000 grant from New Hampshire’s Land and Community Heritage Investment Program.
The Colonial Theatre, which features approximately 750 seats, is reminiscent of many other hundred-year-old New Hampshire theaters that saw renaissances in the last couple decades, like the Palace Theatre in Manchester and the Colonial Theatre in Keene. Justin Slattery, executive director of BEDC, hopes the revitalization will provide Laconia with more cultural opportunities, which will in turn boost the local economy by bringing more people downtown.
“It’s a project that’s been looked at many times in the past. The timing presented itself — partners were able to move it along, and that’s where the opportunity came from,” Slattery said.
“It would be an anchor [to downtown] if it re-opened.”
There’s still a lot to do. Turpin and Misiaszek, who did work with the Winnipesaukee Playhouse nearby, are orchestrating the new design, which is difficult due to the building’s age. It means their plans have to meet approval from multiple entities, including the city, state and national park services. Misiaszek said the theater will be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, so they’ve hired a preservationist and conservator to help. 
Many 1914 details are still present, from the painting and plaster work to the floor finishes, but they also need to update the building to modern-day code and make it adaptable for a wide range of programming — lectures, music festivals, theater productions, films, conferences and shows courtesy of the Putnam Fund, which has seen capacity issues in the past. 
“The building has gone through some transformation, but not a lot. It still has a lot of original systems and pieces in it, which is good, because it’s helpful in our restoration, but there’s a lot of asbestos and other hazardous materials in the building. We have to deal with all that as well since there were no real substantial modern upgrades,” Turpin said. 
The restoration effort will include the block’s apartments and retail space. BEDC will act as the landlord, renting to tenants, but the city will run the theater.
Slattery said he’s encouraged also by the local, state and federal partners that have been “great to work with.” The project has also generated a great deal of excitement from the community; they’ve attended open houses at the theater and brought in old photos, posters, documents and memories of the place. 
“It’s going to be just gorgeous,” Bownes said. “The main challenge now is funding.” 

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