Before & After: The Story of Rialto Theatre

Today, I would like to share with you the inspiring story of the rebirth of Rialto Theatre in Tampa, Florida. I am currently residing just forty minutes south of its location and discovered it with a local search, but its story and the people behind it perfectly embody what I hope to highlight with the continuation of the Before & After Creative Residency Series.

View the artwork on Behance

Rialto Theatre was designed by Tampa-Famous F.J. Kennard and sons. Its signature Blonde Brick aesthetic features inset handmade Italian glass, which glitters like a rainbow when the Floridian sun shines. Images online do not do its presence justice — wedged on a tight street between several buildings built long after it was constructed, photographs are difficult to obtain. However, this is truly one of the most magnificent buildings in the state.

Detail of the Italian Glass tile. Credit: Jacob Berrier

Rialto was built in 1924 as a stage theatre, alongside many others at the height of Tampa show business. Though the building was not air-conditioned, people filed into its 375 fold-down wooden seats to watch plays under the carved proscenium. The theatre was converted for cinema in the 1940s, its facade lit with neon fixtures and its working name temporarily changed to ‘The Cinema’. It closed a few years after World War II began. Over the next few decades the building was used as a car showroom, cemented in by a repair shop, and kept for office storage until 2005, The surrounding neighborhood declined in popularity and upkeep. The building itself suffered leaks and facade damage from the elements.

The only original row of seats remaining. PC Jacob Berrier

Hope Donnelly and George Carter II of 8-Count Productions were looking for a space to grow their company, but were not expecting to find somewhere like Rialto. The theatre was larger and needed more repair than they originally intended to undertake. They were outbid on several buildings in the area, but after much frustration, Rialto seemed meant to be.

Hope and George purchased the theater and rebuilt it. It needed heavy work, but they did not scare easily. They restored and sealed the facade, removing years of rust and grime. They rewired the theatre, replaced plumbing and added air-conditioning. Handicapped accessibility apparatuses have been added. A new roof topped off the restoration. Events are now hosted on the floor, including their own wedding, as well as parties, community happenings, and dance classes. A gallery shows off local artists’ exhibitions. Future continuations of the restoration include possible system installation to accommodate more event types, and the renovation of the mezzanine as a living quarters.

360 view of the interior. PC Jacob Berrier

The community surrounding the building has benefited greatly from Rialto’s return to business. Many new and soon-to-come restaurants and businesses were inspired by their initiative, and the neighborhood is experiencing a fast face-lift.

Rialto Theatre was accepted to the National Register of Historic Places on Friday, August 5th, 2016. It now embodies modern local culture, while simultaneously preserving and representing Tampa’s original soul. Thanks to Hope, George and everyone else involved with this incredible project, this place has been preserved for generations to come.

The building today. PC Jacob Berrier

Before & After was my BFA illustration thesis project at Ringling College of Art and Design. The series of illustrations were my own explorations of time and how it affected places. Now, as an Adobe Creative Resident, I’m applying the concept to real places, real people and real stories.