New Hampshire's flagship performing arts facility has been an ongoing project for SMP for over 20 years. The Capitol Center was originally a 1927 vaudeville house built by the adjacent Masonic Lodge with a large basement banquet hall. The 1,350 seat theater was shoehorned onto the site, and the interior, with an opulent Egyptian theme, was destined to be on the National Register of Historic Places. However, the building had a history of decades of neglect and a downward spiral to a third-rate cinema that was finally condemned by the city. After his involvement in rejuvenating the theatre in the early 90s, Eric Palson had joined Clinton Sheerr’s firm (now SMP) and was called back to implement additional renovation phases, such as the new lobby and box office.
The big design issue was that the theater was hidden from Main Street behind a mansion, and it was elevated a good 12 feet above sidewalk level. In the 1920's and onward, patrons ascended granite steps from the sidewalk a full story, walked through the side yard of the Kimball House mansion, and queued up in the out-of-doors to buy a ticket. That was a non-starter. In addition, SMP had the budget for one elevator to make the whole complex accessible to wheelchairs. There was only location where the four levels of the theater auditorium and the three different levels of the mansion touched each other, and that was far from the sidewalk, in the middle of the project.
The design solution was to connect the sidewalk to the lowest level of the theater at the special elevator location by excavating a landscaped "channel" that leads to a new lobby at the former basement level. At the same time, a freestanding marquee/shelter was built out on the street edge to announce the theater and mark the entry point for the entire procession. Over the years, SMP has also enclosed the exterior stair in glass, made significant improvements to operations back stage. As a board member, Eric has helped develop a plan to enclose the front court walkway to create a glass winter-garden entrance to the complex, which is currently in fundraising. Other plans include the creation of a small black box theater in the basement, doubling the size of the banquet facility, and the overhaul of the loading area to accommodate large-scale road shows. There is also an exciting plan to open the Kimball Mansion to the back of the theater to create elegant break-out space, VIP lounges, and upscale concession areas.