BEST ARCHITECTURAL RENOVATION OF AN OLD BUILDING - 2005
The Varsity Theater
1308 4th St. SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414
Those who hadn't set foot in the Varsity since it was closed to the public in 1991 were surprised to find the art deco landmark lovingly preserved when it reopened in January. Remodeled and refurbished by Loring Pasta Bar owner Jason McLean to be a multipurpose performance, film, and art space, the current theater stands as a culmination of many renovations. It opened as a movie house called the University Theatre in 1915, with Paramount motion pictures and Friday-night amateur vaudeville. For years, the room was small enough to be dubbed "the Dinky," eventually giving the Dinkytown neighborhood its name. But when the theater reopened in 1939 as the Varsity, the event marked an expansion and transformation of the theater. Designed in the streamlined modern style by revered Minnesota architects Jacob J. "Jack" Liebenberg and Seeman Kaplan (who gave us the Suburban World, Uptown Theatre, and Oak Street Cinema), the Varsity became known for its towering marquee--a depressing symbol of decline when it eventually fell dark at the end of the '80s. The Varsity's brief life as a nightclub in the early '90s required a cleanup job. But subsequent owners John and Laura Mowers undertook the largest recent renovation, installing offices in the mezzanine, putting in a new roof, and pouring a level floor for their photography studio, all while conscientiously keeping the vintage look of the interior--besides new plumbing, the bathroom "lounges" are very much as they were in 1939. What was left to do, when McLean took over last year, was turn the studio back into a theater, a project that involved remodeling the backstage, installing some $250,000 worth of theatrical lighting and sound equipment, and putting in seating (provided by air mattresses on movable bleachers). Now the lobby doubles as a bar and café, opening into a tall room lined with red velvet curtains. It's the perfect venue, in other words, for the mixture of movies and live performance that packed the house 90 years ago.