In HearSway

Note: This article was first published in June 2021.

In the years since the Princess Theatre’s last curtain call, its 1914 Broad Street building has housed everything from antiques to vape supplies and clothing boutiques. The front windows were papered over before famed foodie store Southern Season confirmed plans to locate an outpost in the building in 2016 — and the structure has remained empty through that company’s eventual bankruptcy.

The Princess Theatre changed hands from Frank Maser to real estate investors Tom and Lora Gisler in 2018. The couple has been working for months to divide the large building into three distinct spaces that will better fit the needs of modern business owners.

“I really didn’t want to cut it up, to be honest,” Tom said in 2021. “I think it’s neat the way it is — and potential tenants might also say, ‘wow, this is neat,’ but then they look at all the work that has to go into it and they run screaming to their vehicle.”

A new exterior paint job was completed just before this Thanksgiving.

When Will the Project be Completed?

“In this day and age, my crystal ball is broken,” says Tom. But, he did provide some updates on the project.

The front entry, currently behind a temporary door, will open into a lobby that will allow entrance into two separate business spaces, each of which will have a window overlooking Broad Street. The project is currently waiting on the installation of electrical infrastructure. Components have been ordered, and Tom and Lora hope they will arrive in January.

The bones of new walls in the Princess Theatre in May 2022.

The two front suites of the building could be completed by the first quarter of 2023, Tom says. The back of the building, which once housed the theater’s stage, will be its own space. Entry to it will be via an alley / courtyard currently shared with the building that houses Lavender.

“There is still design work to finalize before we can proceed with that area,” Tom says, adding that it might not be completed until mid-2023.

Tom, a project manager, was brought to the Sandhills from the San Francisco Bay Area in 2009 to oversee construction of projects on Fort Bragg and Camp Mackall. His family immediately fell in love with the area. In August 2012, Tom and Lora sold everything and relocated to Moore County, where they founded and later sold Caring Transitions of the Sandhills. Then, they dived into commercial real estate investment.

In 2013, the Gislers acquired the building that today houses Southern Pines Brewing Co. on Pennsylvania and Berri Bowlful. About a year later, he picked up the building across the street, now home to Wine & Design and Dapper Barbershop. In 2021, Tom took ownership of the former home of El Vaquero Mexican Restaurant on the corner of West Pennsylvania Avenue and Bennett Street, also formerly owned by Frank Maser. “I like the idea of having properties that butt up to each other, because it adds potential to development possibilities,” he says.

As for the Princess? “This building here, I fell in love with it. It really is a neat place, especially when you start learning about the history of all of it. You’d be amazed — there are women who come by and tell me they used to dance here.”

Adam Harward Plumbing works to install new pipes under what in June 2021 was a dirt floor.

History of The Princess Theatre

The buggies and the “Princess” moniker date the photo on the left to sometime before 1924, when the business was renamed the Carolina Theatre. Photos courtesy of CinemaTreasures.org.

According to the National Register of Historic Places, T. S. Burgess built the original structure (complete with the rounded top above) for Southern Pines Improvement Company in 1914. Charles Picquet operated it as the Princess Theatre.

The above undated photograph was taken by famed postcard photographer E.C. Eddy, who documented the Sandhills from 1907-1945.

In 1924, Oscar auf der Heide of New York and Dr. George Herr expanded the building (what stands today is actually two combined structures), gave it a new facade and re-opened it as the Carolina Theatre. The national Registry says Charles Picquet and Richard Tufts operated the Southern Pines business in tandem with the Carolina Theatre in Pinehurst.

According to this post from the Moore County Historical Association, Picquet, known as “Charlie,” continued to operate the theatres until 1952. The Picquet Music Scholarship is bestowed by the Kiwanis Club of the Sandhills in his honor.

Since the 1950s, the building has been home to a collection of businesses that used it for retail or performance space. Most recently, it housed Theatre Antiques.

Left, the building in 2015; right, Tom and his son work to install a new awning in early 2020.

In With the New — and the Old

Early in 2020, Neil Smith Engineering drew up conceptual plans for the building that split it into distinct spaces:

  • A front lobby that leads to a central hallway, flanked by two separate spaces that will include a small restroom, office and closet space;
  • A back restaurant or bar area accessible by an alleyway, which will be also be transformed into a landscaped seating area. That area is being designed by local landscape architect Vince Zucchino.

“I want to be able to pay homage to its history,” Tom says. “I just hope I do it justice.”

As all conceptual plans, these designed for the Princess are subject to change, possibly many times.

Tom has replaced the existing front windows and painted the building with colors approved for the historical district. Its historic Luxfer windows (comprised of small squares designed to bend light, among those produced by the Luxfer Prism Company in the early 1900s) have been restored and replaced.

Once complete, Bell Manley Real Estate will be handling the leasing side. Holly Bell, Tom says, was instrumental in convincing him to break the building up into multiple spaces.

The alley will be cleared, landscaped and made handicapped accessible.

For now, the future tenants and even the name remains TBD. Multiple delays and supply shortages have extended the project’s timeline multiple times. Stay tuned.

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