Vinegar Hill, the sequel: Designing a second life for a beloved theater

The renovated Vinegar Hill Theatre space now houses Light House Studio, and has a simple, bare-bones look of white walls and gray flooring. Photo: Stephen Barling The renovated Vinegar Hill Theatre space now houses Light House Studio, and has a simple, bare-bones look of white walls and gray flooring. Photo: Stephen Barling

When Vinegar Hill Theatre closed its doors in 2013 after 37 years of showing independent films, many cinephiles in Charlottesville mourned its loss. So when the downtown building became the home of Light House Studio in May 2015, says Light House’s Brooks Wellmon, “There was a ton of community interest in preserving the theater.”

Light House is a 17-year-old nonprofit that puts movie cameras in the hands of local kids, and Wellmon says it had outgrown its former headquarters in the Live Arts building on Water Street. “We just needed more and more space,” she says.

Light House classes and camps for kids always culminate in screenings of students’ films, and with the acquisition of Vinegar Hill, that could now happen in a real-life theater. That was the good news; the challenge was to update the audio and visual equipment and to plan for lots more classroom and meeting space in the future. Light House approached Wolf Ackerman to renovate Vinegar Hill and the restaurant space attached to it along West Market, as well as design a three-story Phase II addition behind the existing buildings.

Fred Wolf says that before the restaurant was added in the 1980s, the old theater had “a beautifully minimal, modernist façade. Our addition, which emphasizes simple wall planes and sections of glass, is meant to allude to that language.”

The renovated space has a functional, bare-bones look with gray concrete floors and white walls. Existing soapstone around the entrance exterior was preserved (along with the old concession booth) and a new paint job along the Market Street façade has a sly hidden meaning. “It was meant to abstractly allude to a strip of film, with the windows becoming the frames of the film,” says Wolf.

Wellmon says the whole facility—especially the theater itself, which despite technical upgrades retains its old seats and familiar feel—will open to the public for screenings, Q&As with filmmakers and other events. In that way, the old Vinegar Hill will live on. “The community didn’t want to see it transformed beyond recognition,” she says.

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