Visitors to the renovated Palace Theatre posed for selfies, wandered around the main floor and climbed upstairs to the very back rows to check out the acoustics as indie musician Jeremy Messersmith sang.
"It feels incredible. It feels old and new," Messersmith said Friday after he wrapped up his performance. The space has a "real sonic clarity," he said, along with a mix of balcony seating in back and standing room up front.
"For St. Paul, this is a big leap forward from the Turf Club," Messersmith said.
A throng of curious fans got an early look at the renovated 100-year-old theater in St. Paul, which is expected to open for performances in early March.
The 2,800-capacity venue will be one of the largest concert halls in the Twin Cities, on par with the University of Minnesota's Northrop Auditorium. Its overhaul has been a centerpiece of Mayor Chris Coleman's efforts to revitalize downtown St. Paul and an expensive one, at nearly $15.7 million.
But critics, who said the money should have been spent on needs elsewhere in the city, were absent Friday.
Finishing touches still are needed, including acoustic and aesthetic work. But, according to city officials, the space on West 7th Place is nearly ready for operating partners First Avenue and JAM Productions to take over.
Architect Thomas Stromsodt marveled at the scene Friday. When he first saw the space in 2001, he said, it was a "pigeon playground."
When work began on the theater in 2015, it had been mostly vacant for decades and degraded to the point that a couple of more years would have made the damage irreparable, he said.
Developers decided to keep the history — good and bad — exposed, Stromsodt said. So along with the detailed crown molding that hearkens to the theater's vaudeville days, there are holes in the walls and chunks of the ceiling ripped out where a heating and cooling system was added in the 1940s.
Several visitors said they liked the unfinished look.
"It tells a story," said St. Paul resident Vanessa Hitt, who checked out the space with her friend Jaclyn Hansel and about 250 others. Hitt and Hansel used to work nearby and walk by the Palace almost every day, and were curious about its transformation.
"It seems like St. Paul has been second fiddle for a long time," said Hitt, who was pleased to see the investment in downtown. For the theater to be a success, the women said restaurants and bars are needed nearby that stay open late.
Funding for the refurbishment came primarily from the city and the state of Minnesota. The city bought the building from Kelly Bros. for about $325,000.
Coleman anticipates the theater will benefit other businesses in the area. He said the Palace will attract an additional 100,000 people to downtown St. Paul every year.
The venue will host more than bands. It will be a teaching theater, said Chris Osgood of the McNally Smith College of Music. During the day, he said, students from McNally Smith will use the concert space to learn about box office operations, stage management and live sound.