Mayor Hopes Big Names Will Return To Restored Auditorium

Peabody, MA Mayor Ted Bettencourt speaks about the recent repairs at the Wiggin Auditorium in Peabody's City Hall. It was known as the "opera house" when City Hall was built in 1883. 11/29/2018 HADLEY GREEN/ The Salem News

PEABODY, Mass. (AP) — If the mayor gets his wish, the Wiggin Auditorium in City Hall may someday host international performers like Celtic Woman, the Irish music sensation, and other big names.

And he's hoping that recent renovations to the auditorium, known as the "opera house" when City Hall was built in 1883, will help make the hall a destination that could attract hundreds of concertgoers downtown.

"I have always felt there is a great deal of potential in this building, and I want to utilize it more for the community and have more events here," Mayor Ted Bettencourt said. "That is really the driving force behind this."

In recent months, the Frank L. Wiggin Auditorium, which takes up much of the second and third floors of City Hall and which serves as the City Council's chambers, has undergone nearly $240,000 in renovations to restore the ornate, decorative ceiling and install new sound and video projection systems.

"We had to put buckets out to collect water, it was running down the walls," Bettencourt said, recalling how a formerly leaky roof damaged the ceiling.

"The condition of the auditorium was really starting to deteriorate," he said. "There was significant water damage that caused a lot of holes, the wearing away of some of the ceiling and tiles."

The restoration was funded with a combination of city and state money, including a $102,000 grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiscal 2016. The city had previously set aside $135,000 for capital improvements, said Julie Daigle, the city's treasurer and former city business liaison who wrote the state grant to pay for the Wiggin work.

Most of the money — $163,000 — paid for audio-visual upgrades, with $39,000 going to Westmill Preservation of Halifax for the ceiling work.

The project also included replacing light bulbs in the chandeliers with energy-efficient ones, refinishing the auditorium floors, cleaning, and various other items such as curtains, railings and carpeting.

All this came after the city spent $1.3 million to repair City Hall's historic slate roof in 2013. The auditorium restoration had to wait until the roof was replaced.

Last week, the mayor pointed out places in the auditorium's ceiling where gaping holes had to be patched and the ceiling's decorative artwork had to be restored.

The ceiling decorations were created by Matthew Robinson when the building opened, according to the 1980 history of City Hall by John Wells. City Hall also underwent extensive renovations in 1980 that allowed for the auditorium to be reopened to the public. The ceiling was fully restored at the time.

That was also the year the auditorium was dedicated in memory of former longtime City Councilor Frank L. Wiggin.

"I wanted this auditorium to pop, and it really does now," said Bettencourt, who used to be frustrated when he would come to work and see the condition of the auditorium. The mayor's office sits off the back of the auditorium.

"I didn't want to have this beautiful building start to deteriorate and become a source of embarrassment," he said.

While the Wiggin serves as a regular meeting space for city boards and community gatherings, it was decked out for the city's annual holiday concerts this past weekend.

The renovations have not gone unnoticed.

"They did a phenomenal job," said Debbie Macgregor, the city's business liaison. The beautification of the auditorium and upgrades to its sound system makes it more appealing to groups that want to rent it, she said. The auditorium can comfortably seat 500.

"The acoustics are terrific," said Deanne Healey, president of Peabody Main Streets, who said the building originally served as an opera house. As a performance space, the auditorium would be a perfect way to attract people downtown, similar to the success Lynn Memorial Auditorium has had. Healey said the next step would be to figure out what niche the Wiggin could fill, and then promote it properly.

While not as large as Lynn Auditorium, which has nearly 2,100 seats, Bettencourt envisions a small concert and performance venue to help bolster the downtown's fledgling restaurants and nightlife.

He would like the auditorium to complement Northeast Arc's new Black Box Theater, which is designed for more intimate performances and comedy nights. The auditorium could also be a venue for local dance studios and school performances.

Information from: The Salem (Mass.) News, http://www.salemnews.com

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