Culpeper State Theatre: The Curtain Rises Again

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After sitting vacant for almost a decade, the 1938 Art Deco State Theatre in Culpeper, Virginia, a 2012 Great American Main Street Award winner, is back in business. For years, the theatre sat abandoned, coming perilously close to demolition before being purchased by Culpeper natives Greg and Liz Yates. At the time, there was a hole in the ceiling near the stage and the building was seriously dilapidated. But thanks to a committed group of community members, led by the State Theatre Foundation, a $9.3 million historic rehabilitation has raised the curtain on the former vaudeville and movie house, revealing a gorgeous 560-seat live theatre.

The rehabilitation has restored key historic elements, including the beloved neon marquee, while also installing a $1 million state-of-the-art sound system, expanding the stage, and creating a 50-seat black box theater for smaller shows. The project also retained a segregated staircase that was once for black patrons.

The State Theatre is listed in the National and State Registers of Historic Places. “Some of the theatre's most stunning features are the reproduction of the original carpeting and the beautifully reproduced wall sconces that grace the auditorium walls,” said Ed Bednarczyk, executive director of The State Theatre Foundation, the theatre's nonprofit developer. “The original proscenium arch embraces the stage as it did 75 years ago,” he added.

With a year-round calendar of events, the theatre will bring new economic development and excitement to downtown Culpeper. Its entertainment and educational programming--including national touring artists and local and regional theatre, dance, music and film—will serve as a major tourism draw. Theatre patrons will help fuel the local economy through their hotel stays, restaurant spending and support of local businesses, keeping historic Culpeper bustling well after dark several nights a week. The project has already helped spur further development in downtown Culpeper, with a $3 million project by a private developer now underway to create a banquet hall to complement the theatre’s programming.

To finance the project, the State Theatre Foundation used approximately $1.6 million in federal historic tax credits, a program that since its inception has contributed more than $106 billion to rehabilitate 38,700 vacant and underutilized historic spaces and create 2.3 million jobs. The foundation also used $1.6 million in Virginia state historic tax credits.

The State Theatre Foundation, the nonprofit developer of the theatre, utilized approximately $1.6 million in federal historic tax credits and $1.6 million in Virginia state historic tax credits to finance the project. Since its inception, the federal historic tax credit—now threatened by tax reform debates on Capitol Hill—has contributed more than $106 billion to rehabilitate 38,700 vacant and underutilized historic spaces while creating 2.3 million jobs.

“This project simply wouldn’t have been possible without the federal historic tax credit,” said Bednarczyk. “The equity provided by this program made it possible for us to complete the financing. Without it, there’s a very strong possibility the theater would still be vacant, and a drag on Culpeper’s ongoing revitalization.”

John Leith-Tetrault, president of the National Trust Community Investment Corporation, the National Trust’s for-profit subsidiary and a tax credit investor in the project, added, “The State Theatre has all the ingredients of the type of project that the historic tax credit was designed to support: an iconic historic building, great community benefit, and a top-notch rehabilitation that would be difficult if not impossible to finance using only conventional sources. We are already seeing the important community revitalization impact of this project. The federal historic tax credit is an essential catalyst for keeping our historic downtowns vital and dynamic.”

The theatre kicked off its week-long grand opening celebration with a sold-out performance by Virginia native Bruce Hornsby on May 4 and culminated with a Grand Opening Gala featuring Lyle Lovett and His Acoustic Group on May 11. And thanks to community support and historic tax credits, it will be celebrating for years to come, too.