North Star Theater back in the spotlight with historic $1.7 million renovation | A Tammany
When property developer Barrett McGuire and his wife, Jill, bought the North Star Theater complex in Old Mandeville, it wasn’t an impulse buy. Acquiring the historic property and turning it into an art center was a longtime dream for the couple.
Jill, now a member of the Mandeville City Council, had majored in theater at Southwestern Louisiana University, and she performed years ago on the North Star stage. Barrett had other historic renovations to his credit, including Rest A While at Lake Mandeville, which was also originally a hotel.
With this purchase, the McGuires now own the two remaining historic hotels in the area and they are bringing in the same contractor, Brad Rogers, to restore the North Star to its former glory.
Although the North Star decision was not difficult, the revival was not without drama. The main building, which had been converted to offices, was in poor condition when the McGuires purchased it in 2020. The pandemic had just begun, and shortly after the main building was raised, Hurricane Ida swept through and twisted the 6,800 square-foot structure, requiring the replacement of structural components starting with the floor joists.
“It wasn’t in my budget or my game plan,” Barrett McGuire said.
The cost of materials has also skyrocketed, due to supply chain issues. Siding for a previous restoration, of a cabin that was part of the Bands’ former grocery store, had cost 98 cents per board foot, and he was able to obtain it locally. But this ride, it cost $9.75.
But when they lift the curtain on their $1.7 million investment later this year, the McGuires think the North Star will shine again.
“Office space would be the highest and best use,” Barrett McGuire said of the buildings, on Girod Street. “But we need cultural arts, not offices, in this area.”
The North Star’s main building dates back to 1927 and it has served several roles during its lifetime, first as a hotel. But unlike the grand lakeside hotels, where New Orleans’ wealthy flocked during Mandeville’s heyday as a resort town, the Allenton Hotel was a getaway for the middle and working class, Barrett McGuire said.
“Kind of like a motel,” Jill said.
The kitchen, dining room, and dance floor were downstairs, and upstairs had two bathrooms and 10 guest bedrooms.
When the Lake Pontchartrain causeway was built in the 1950s, the hotel housed construction crews, Barrett McGuire said.
After that, the building was transformed into what was called the Small Mall, with different small shops, and at some point it was covered with a gray vinyl coating.
This was dismantled and replaced with what was there originally: a double cove facing, in pine. Only 10% of the original coating was salvageable; the rest they had custom made in Gulfport, Mississippi, to match.
Only 10 of the original window sashes remained, so they had another 80 sashes bespoke to match. “Windows is a defining feature,” Barrett McGuire said.
Finding the right color was also a project. “We found old photos of the Small Mall and literally created the color,” Barrett McGuire said, which took several tries. “It’s a lot of red, but it works,” he said.
A colorful past
The property is said to have been a brothel for a time and is said to be haunted by the ghost of an old woman; some have claimed over the years to have heard his voice and his wheelchair moving on the floor.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the property became the North Star Theatre. Actress and director Lori Taylor, now Lori Bennett Prudhomme, bought it as a home for her non-profit organization, United Theater Artists, Inc. The last production there was in the early 2000s.
This incarnation is what the McGuires want to bring back, but in an expanded form that will be a convergence of all the arts. The McGuires plan to keep local artists and performers in the community.
“Too many of our artists are leaving. We want to keep them and give them a place to pursue their careers,” Barrett McGuire said.
A place for artists
The North Star Cultural Arts Center will have gallery space in the main building, with regularly changing exhibitions, two studios, a concessions area and a place to gather and hang out, Barrett McGuire said. Artists will not be charged for using exhibition or studio space, he said.
An annex building on the site is donated to the Ozone Music Education Foundation for offices and classrooms. “They’re really the lifeblood of what’s going on here,” Barrett McGuire said of the nonprofit group.
Another outbuilding, called Green Room, will be used for this purpose – a place for actors waiting to take the stage – but Jill McGuire said it could also serve as a space for children’s theatre.
The auditorium, which was built in 1990, is in very good condition, Barrett McGuire said. But it will have new lighting and sound systems as well as live streaming capability. Plans call for using the theater for productions of all kinds, from singer-songwriter nights to plays to stand-up comedy.
The venue will not charge for use or space and will not take any share of the box office, he said.
“It’s not a competition with anybody,” Barrett McGuire said. “It’s a way of bringing everyone together and growing that.”