After nearly a year of work, the renovation of downtown Duluth's NorShor Theatre is about 60 percent complete, and the project remains on track to be finished by December.

That was the gist of an update Christine Gradl Seitz provided during a Wednesday morning news conference in the historic theater's lobby. As the executive and artistic director of the Duluth Playhouse, she expressed confidence the NorShor will be completely ready for the troupe's opening-night performance of the musical "Mamma Mia" come Feb. 1, 2018.

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The project can scarcely afford for its timeline to slip. Unless the renovation is completed by December, millions of dollars of tax credit funding could be placed at risk.

At Wednesday's news conference, Gradl Seitz unveiled a canvas painting workers discovered behind a suspended ceiling that was installed in 1941 when the existing Orpheum Theatre was converted into the NorShor. The grand theater's original balcony had been concealed and transformed into a makeshift attic. But Gradl Seitz said a careful exploration of the space revealed "this beautiful mural, which we believe dates back to 1910, and the original Orpheum (Theatre)."

Gradl Seitz noted that the painting is believed to be an original fixture, as the plaster wall behind the mural was unpainted, and the picture was exactly proportioned for the space it occupied.

"Someone painted this beautiful mural on canvas, but we don't know who or when or why. So we're hoping the public can help solve this mystery," said Gradl Seitz. Plans call for the restored 8-by-10-foot painting of a semi-clothed woman dancing with a pink sash to hang in the lobby of the renovated theater.

A canvas painting of a woman with sashes was discovered by workers behind a suspended ceiling. Bob King / News Tribune
A canvas painting of a woman with sashes was discovered by workers behind a suspended ceiling. Bob King / News Tribune

The project developer, Sherman Associates, and its partner, Johnson Wilson Constructors, now are focusing on improvements to the NorShor's auditorium and performance space, with a concrete stage to be poured over the next 30 days.

Richard Kiemen, Sherman's senior vice president of construction, said the $30.5 million project continues to track on budget, thanks in large part to what he called a "hefty contingency fund," set aside for additional costs the development team suspected they might encounter in an unevenly maintained 107-year-old building.

Kiemen said that contingency fund - equating to about 10 percent of the project budget - came in handy when an orchestra pit excavation came up against rock and when it was discovered the building would need extensive concrete restoration.

"The onion continues to peel and peel, and you find more and more. But I would not say there was anything substantially unusual other than it was extensive," he said.

Workers build the stage at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth on Wednesday morning. Bob King / News Tribune
Workers build the stage at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth on Wednesday morning. Bob King / News Tribune

The Playhouse has launched a $4.5 million fundraising effort to equip the theater with lighting, a sound system, an orchestra pit and other accoutrements. So far, Gradl Seitz said the Playhouse has received financial commitments totaling about $1 million toward its capital campaign.

In addition to seeking individual donations, the Playhouse, which will be the NorShor's primary tenant, also is offering to sell naming rights for parts of the theater.

Funding for the project came together as a complex package that includes state bond monies, federal tax credits and local tax-increment financing. Financial support also will come from other non-government sources, such as the Local Initiatives Support Corp, the Duluth Playhouse and Sherman Associates.

Because of financial constraints, the project does not currently include a reconstruction of the iconic tower structure that stood above the NorShor's marquee back in the 1940s. Restoring that element would add about $1 million to the cost of the renovation, Kiemen said.

"We've completed an initial study with our structural engineer and we got some preliminary estimates with regards to it. We are looking at opportunities to make that happen. But as of right now, it's not a part of the project at this point," Kiemen said.