Newly renovated historic Florida Theatre reopens


The wait is over. The paint and plaster are dry. And the newly renovated historic Florida Theatre in downtown Jacksonville has reopened.

Mayor Donna Deegan and other dignitaries participated in a ribbon cutting on Oct. 27 inside the lobby/auditorium for the big reveal. The first production, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” opened the next evening.

The Florida Theatre had been closed since mid-July to renovate the 96-year-old facility. All the flaking and peeling decorative plaster in the auditorium was repaired; the lobbies and the auditorium were painted with fidelity to the 1927 color palette; the entire heating, ventilation and air conditioning system was replaced; and the building’s electrical vault was moved from the first to the third floor.

But probably the thing people will notice the most is that all the public restrooms have been updated.

Ironically, the Florida Theatre reopened around the 40th anniversary of the last major renovation that took place in 1983.

These projects build upon projects that have already been accomplished at the Florida Theatre, which include replacing the Theatre’s 1,865 seats; doubling the wheelchair-seating capacity; installing a new assistive listening system for people who are hearing-impaired; improving the aisle lighting and handrails, especially in the balcony; installing a new concert sound system and lighting system; and repurposing the second floor of the office building into the new Remedy Lounge, which was the first expansion of the venue’s public space in 95 years.

The City of Jacksonville matched private donations to help fund the work. Contributions came also from the Centennial Campaign donors, Florida Theatre members and everyone in Northeast Florida who has ever bought a ticket to a show at the Florida Theatre and paid the $4.50 restoration fee. The principal artisans worked feverishly to restore the building to its original grandeur.

“The Florida Theatre is one of downtown Jacksonville's gems,” said Deegan. “With its 100th birthday approaching, this is an exciting time to restore the theater to its full splendor.”

Auld and White Constructors was the general contractor for this project. Sauer Mechanical did the HVAC work. EverGreene Architectural Arts did all the plaster/paint work and restored the tapestries. And Beacon Electric moved the electrical vault from the first to the third floor so it would no longer be a flood risk.

“Auld & White Constructors is honored to have been Florida Theatre's Construction Partner for its renovations and next-generation mechanical system upgrades,” said Nate Marty, CEO of Auld & White Constructors. “AWC recognizes that the timely completion of the recent work at Jacksonville's iconic cultural hub was critical in enhancing the patron experience for the theater's upcoming shows and Centennial Celebration. I'm proud of our team's hard work and unwavering dedication to preserving the legacy and building the future of this historic Northeast Florida landmark for years to come.”

“Sauer Mechanical is proud to participate in the historic Florida Theatre renovation,” added Heather Staggs-Miller, project manager with Sauer Mechanical. “During the shut-down period, we have replaced the aging rooftop chillers with new Daikin air-cooled chillers and the sixth-floor custom-built air handler and outdoor air unit with all associated chilled water piping air distribution. HVAC upgrades during this phase also included demolition of the boiler system no longer in use, replacing restroom exhaust fans, and upgrading the controls system.”

“There were several things that were unique about the Florida Theatre project,” said Jeff Greene, AIC-PA, executive chairman and founder of EverGreene Architectural Arts. “Like the mysterious connection to John Eberson, one of America’s most prominent architects known for movie palace designs in the atmospheric theater style (the outdoor feel inside). The original four faux tapestries that hang in the Florida Theatre were painted. Since they are the same size and have the same imagery as the ones in the Tampa Theatre (which Eberson did), we were able to replicate them. When we did our forensic research and put all the theater finishes under the microscope, we realized they were painted with the same paint and style that Eberson used. His signature, per se. It was fascinating to see what his influence did.”

Greene added, “A big part of what we do at EverGreene is connect back to history. We wanted to return the Florida Theatre to its original, authentic self. When the building was renovated in the 1970s, they moved away from that a bit. We wanted to return as accurately as possible to what it looked like in 1927. The challenge was the short time frame we had. The surprise or mystery was the Eberson connection. But we did our research, added some interpretation, and found the harmony and balance we were striving for.”

“As a lifelong resident of Jacksonville with many wonderful memories surrounding the Florida Theatre, this project has been a challenging opportunity for Beacon as well as an honor to be part of,” said Shawn Heath, owner of Beacon Electrical Contractors.

“Over the last four years, by the end of this calendar year, we will have raised and spent $15 million on building improvements to the historic Florida Theatre,” said Numa Saisselin, president of the Florida Theatre. “After this, there’s about $8 million left of work to do to get the rest of the building where it needs to be, including expanding the entry lobby, a new artist hospitality space, dressing room improvements, marquee restorations and administrative office improvements.”

According to Saisselin, the cherry on top would be bringing back the original vertical blade sign back that used to adorn the theater.

All of these projects, under the banner of the Centennial Capital Improvement Plan, which started in 2019, aim to prepare the historic Florida Theatre for its 100th birthday in 2027 and the next 100 years.

“Our $15 million renovation has intensified the already unique Florida Theatre experience — it’s truly at a new level,” said Leslie Gordon, chair of the Board of Directors at the Florida Theatre. “As the theater approaches its 100th birthday in 2027, we must remember — this is one of the last remaining theaters of its kind in our country! And we have to take care of it, nurture it and support it so we can continue to laugh, cry, dance, sing and do all that we do in our beloved Florida Theatre.”

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