Thirteen years after it closed, the grand and historic Capitol Theatre in downtown Davenport may finally be ready for its closeup in about four months.
The nearly 103-year-old, 1,500-seat theater at 326 W. 3rd St. has been rigorously, lovingly renovated to its former glory — as part of the $24-million restoration and transformation of the 10-story Kahl Building. The Capitol expects to reopen to events (potentially comedy, music, films and dance) this spring, chief developer Chris Ales said Thursday.
Under a partnership with Jim Bergman of JNB Capitol Building (which bought the building in 2018 from Scott Community College, when the school opened its new urban campus downtown), the theater renovation work began three years ago. The Kahl Lofts were done first (completed this past September) with 60-plus units, and the majority have been rented, Ales said.
“The theater, we hoped to be done by the end of the year, but we’re not quite there,” he said Thursday.
“We’re trying to hit a sweet spot in the market,” he said of local theaters, compared to the 2,400-seat Adler Theatre down East 3rd Street. “Everything I’ve heard from people is, it will all complement each other. Same concept as restaurant row, you have multiple restaurants next to each other.”
“It’s a challenge to address the current code, in particular life safety and the sprinkler system, without disrupting all the architectural features,” Ales said of the extensive, painstaking renovations, which include installation of several new restrooms.
The plaster repair work took about three years, he noted. The north wall had severe water damage, and the ornate plaster trim had to be rebuilt inside and out. The theater roof also was replaced.
“All that trim is probably three years or better,” Ales said. “Of all this decorative work, about 50 percent was gone and had to be rebuilt.”
There was a section of the mural in the dome had fallen, and had to be put back in place. Dozens of craftsmen have worked on the project, Ales said.
Opened in 1920
The Capitol opened Christmas Day in 1920 with William Faversham in the film “The Man Who Lost Himself.” Operating as a mixed-use vaudeville and movie theatre, it later began showing movies only.
The original builder, Henry Kahl, wanted to rival any theater in Chicago or New York, Ales said. The Capitol opened with 2,500 seats, later scaled down to 1,500 seats.
On each side of the main auditorium, it featured alcoves containing a grand piano on one side and a harp on the other. It also had a working Wicks pipe organ, which was maintained by the Theatre Organ Society. The organ has not been restored, Ales said, due to cost limitations.
On the walls in the lobby, foyer, and upstairs were paintings, which were retouched in the late-1960s. By 1941, the Capitol Theatre was operated by Paramount Pictures Inc. through their subsidiary A.H. Blank.
The Capitol famously hosted Buddy Holly’s last tour, the Winter Dance Party on Jan. 29, 1959 that included Holly (then 22 years old), the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens before their deaths five days later in an airplane crash outside of Clear Lake, Iowa.
In the early-1970s, the Capitol switched to Spanish language films. In 1978, it began screening X-rated adult movies. During the 1980s, it was also used as a Christian Center. From 1990 to 1994, it was a concert hall for country, jazz, and small touring acts, and then for local productions of ballet, community, and college theatre.
The Capitol hosted the Marycrest College Performing Arts Series from 1981 to 1986.
In 1994, the family of Davenport banker V.O. Figge and his wife Elizabeth, who was Henry Kahl’s daughter, donated the building to Scott Community College Foundation, which used it for academic purposes. The Eastern Iowa Community College District announced in August 2014 their intention to leave the Kahl Building and relocate to a new campus downtown.
Scott had used the Capitol as a non-profit rental hall for concerts, lectures, etc. (including Ballet Quad Cities), but was closed in fall 2010.
How he got into the field
A Davenport native, Ales first became enamored of history years ago, when he attended St. Ambrose, a photo instructor critiqued his pictures, which were all old, historic buildings.
“I really didn’t know I had that penchant until that day,” Ales recalled. “I graduated, spent a number of years as a CPA, worked a lot with historic tax credits, affordable housing tax credits, so I took my experience with tax credits and historic buildings, and put the two together, like a Reese’s peanut butter cup. Here we are.”
He’s redeveloped historic Davenport buildings for over 20 years, starting with the former St. Katharine’s School – today’s Renwick Mansion (built in 1877) at 901 Tremont Ave., Davenport, and later the former Marycrest College campus.
“It’s very rewarding,” Ales said of how the historic preservation of the Renwick later led to its reopening as a popular wedding and event space. “It’s the people in the building that make the difference. It’s really rewarding to see the buildings, with seniors living there, the Renwick House where you have events, or a facility like this (the Capitol).”
He grew up in northwest Davenport and went to high school in Muscatine. One of his historic preservation projects is the Welch Hotel in Muscatine.
Ales’ grandmother went to the former Buchanan School (2104 W. 6th St.), which he converted into senior apartments called Naval Station, after their use as a U.S. Naval Training Center. His other apartments from restored historic buildings are at 1101 W. 9th St., and 2504 Telegraph Road, Davenport.
He’s also working on renovating the old Apollo High School in Burlington for senior apartments.
“The senior population has more of a connection to these older, historic buildings,” Ales said. “Also, it’s easier to manage. When I got into this business 20 years ago, you could go to just about any community in the country and there’s a need for senior housing.”
It’s vital to preserve historic buildings because they’re irreplaceable.
A Capitol investment
“This one is my coup de grace,” Ales said of the Capitol. “You just don’t get to work with these materials on new construction. There’s no way you could build this from scratch today. It’s really rewarding to work with these materials and have a finished product this ornate, and has all the history to go with it.”
He attended many concerts at the Capitol when he was a student.
Funding for the Kahl Lofts included affordable housing tax credits, and state and federal historic tax credits. The city gave the project an urban revitalization tax exemption, and the Capitol renovation has included historic tax credits as well.
The city is keeping the property taxes low for a period of 10 years, Ales said.
“My attorney worked for the college, when they had the building, and he let me know they were going to be issuing a request for proposals. He knew I’d be interested and long story short, here we are,” he said.
They plan to host the first events in the spring.
Ales won’t be involved in the management of the facility, but said he wasn’t at liberty to discuss the details.
“The best advice I got in high school was, do one thing and do it well, so I do historic preservation, adaptive re-use and affordable housing,” he said. “I don’t run theaters. We knew from day one we’d need to get an operator. One of the greatest challenges of this project – not to belittle all the construction we had to do – but clearly the greatest challenge was the COVID-19 virus and how that affected construction.
“Not to mention trying to finance the theater,” he said, noting renovations were not stopped due to COVID, but crews were limited and had to take precautions. “Who in their right mind was going to lend money for this theater, when theaters and other businesses were closing? We persevered and here we are.”
“It was a challenge to get a full crew, but we were successful in always having somebody here,” Ales said. “when you have somebody there, it protects the theater.”
Crossing the river into history
Ales also working on restoring the historic Best Building at 1705 2nd Ave., Rock Island, later this year, to open in 2024.
It was built by Louis Best, an industrialist and real estate magnate from Davenport in 1908. It was designed by the prominent Davenport architectural firm of Clausen & Clausen in the Renaissance Revival style.
It has housed the Brady-Waxenberg Department Store followed by Montgomery Ward. It later was used as an office building, including formerly the VanDerGinst law offices.
In 1992, New York artist Richard Haas painted the north elevation of the building with a 60-foot-tall memorial of local Sauk warrior Black Hawk. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.
To see a slideshow of Capitol Theatre photos, click below.