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Interior of the Tennessee Theater, seen from the balcony looking to stage, ornate golden-patterned ceiling with round, recessed detail, dark red theatre seating
The Tennessee Theatre

Leveraging Tax Credits to Update Historic Icon

Project Location

Knoxville, TN


66,500 SF


Architecture, engineering, interiors, preservation, theater design


National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Preservation Award, 2005

The landmark Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville is restored to its full Spanish-Moorish splendor following an extensive rehabilitation, expansion, and modernization program. Originally designed as a movie palace, the Tennessee Theatre opened in 1928 as one of the grandest theaters in the South. By the late 1990’s, the sumptuous Tennessee was dated and tired, and its entire stage and support were inadequate for modern performances and touring productions.

The restoration features a new, expanded stage house for symphony, opera, and a variety of performing arts groups. The design enables the theater to meet today’s demanding performance expectations while honoring its historic design features. Situated on an urban block, the upstage wall extended to the property line on a major thoroughfare, which adjoins a neighboring cemetery. The design solution cantilevers the stage over the street, overcoming the construction challenges of casting caissons and working in an area known for poor soils, caves, and the relics of older subterranean buildings. The project was funded through public and private support including a windfall of $6 million in Historic and New Market tax credits, secured with the assistance of our firm. Within three months of re-opening, the 1,600-seat theater was ranked 47th on Pollstar’s List of Top 50 Theaters. This project has been widely published and has received numerous honors, including an award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The project also included an enlarged orchestra pit, new elevators, theater support spaces, acoustic and audio improvements, and re- shaping the original audience chamber. Upgrades encompassed theatrical systems required for contemporary productions, including new rigging, theatrical lighting and control and soft goods; modifications for accessibility; and mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems. Improved patron amenities include a new box office, modernized restrooms, new seats and improved sight lines, concessions, and lounges. Interior work involved new carpeting, draperies, and lighting fixtures replicating the original design, as well as the historic restoration of plaster and paint surfaces.

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