Blue Water eyes historic Wayzata church for new theater space

Group would use century-old building for rehearsals and performances

Blue Water Theater Company Director Charlie Leonard leads a rehearsal for “Oliver!” in 2015 at the group’s current rehearsal studio in the Wayzata Home Center. The youth theater company has submitted a development application to purchase a century-old church on Rice Street for its new rehearsal and performance space. (Sun Sailor file photo by Jason Jenkins)
Blue Water Theater Company Director Charlie Leonard leads a rehearsal for “Oliver!” in 2015 at the group’s current rehearsal studio in the Wayzata Home Center. The youth theater company has submitted a development application to purchase a century-old church on Rice Street for its new rehearsal and performance space. (Sun Sailor file photo by Jason Jenkins)

Leaders of the Blue Water Theatre Company, the Wayzata-based youth theater group, hope to turn a century-old church into its new home for rehearsals and community theater productions.

Talks are underway at the city after city officials received a development application from Blue Water and Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka, the current owners of the property at 605 Rice Street. The church began looking for a potential buyer once its plans were approved for a new building, which is set to open next year in Wayzata’s Holdridge neighborhood.

The early stages of the plans were discussed at the Dec. 19 Wayzata Planning Commission meeting.

Charlie Leonard, executive and artistic director and founder of Blue Water, addressed the commission to offer insight into the theater company’s plans for the space. He explained that for the majority of its use, the building would be used for rehearsals and other in-house activities. The space would also host Blue Water’s six to 10 smaller productions each year, which Leonard said feature cast sizes ranging from a small handful up to about 40 actors. The group would continue to rent offsite auditoriums for its four “mainstage” productions that feature about 50 teen actors in each show.

In 2016, Blue Water’s smaller productions included two elementary school musicals, two student-directed plays, one middle school musical and one college musical. In all, the six productions had a total of 22 public performances, Leonard said.

“It’s going to be a theater that will seat around a hundred people, which is about what the church seats right now,” Leonard said.

The application to the city details that there would be no building or site changes that would require design review from the city. Leonard said work that the work needed to be done to convert the church to theater space would be minimal.

“Our goal is to preserve the look as much as we can,” Leonard said.

The director said improvements include adding flexible seating, theater equipment for performances and updating the existing monument sign with the theater company’s name and logo. The theater company is also considering adding an additional restroom on the main level.

Wayzata-based Blue Water Theatre Company is in talks with the city over early stage plans to purchase the century-old church at 605 Rice Street for its new theater space. The site, which was once commonly referred to as Piety Hill, has been home to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka since 1965. (Sun Sailor file photo by Jason Jenkins)
Wayzata-based Blue Water Theatre Company is in talks with the city over early stage plans to purchase the century-old church at 605 Rice Street for its new theater space. The site, which was once commonly referred to as Piety Hill, has been home to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka since 1965. (Sun Sailor file photo by Jason Jenkins)

“One of the things that draws us to it – and as a lifelong resident of the area – is the historical nature of the building,” Leonard said. “We love it. We think it’s beautiful.”

This summer, an event was hosted to honor the 100-year anniversary of the church building, which has served as home to three congregations: Wayzata Community Church (1916-1949), Wayzata Free Church (1952-1965) and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka (1965 to present).

The historic church’s blueprints were drawn by prominent Minneapolis architect Harry Wild Jones, who was also behind the designs for Butler Square and the iconic Lakewood Memorial Chapel in Minneapolis. Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The application from Blue Water and the church drew support from Wayzata Heritage Preservation Board Chair Kim Anderson.

“Once Charlie and his theater group entered the picture, we were pleasantly surprised and even more encouraged that they really shared the desire to preserve it the way that we had really hoped that next owner would,” Anderson said to the planning commission.

The idea to repurpose the building into a community theater received an overall positive response from members of the planning commission, who approved a motion to direct city staff to come back to the commission’s Jan. 4 meeting with a draft recommendation of approval for the conditional use permit request. The commission also asked staff to include a site management plan that addresses traffic flow, hours of operation and curfews for performances to ease noise concerns from neighboring residents.

The Rev. Kent Hemmen Saleska of Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka talks with longtime member Mary Opheim this past summer at an open house celebrating the building’s 100-year anniversary. (Sun Sailor file photo by Jason Jenkins)
The Rev. Kent Hemmen Saleska of Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka talks with longtime member Mary Opheim this past summer at an open house celebrating the building’s 100-year anniversary. (Sun Sailor file photo by Jason Jenkins)

Addressing the parking needs for the site, Leonard noted that the public performances would draw an audience similar in size to what the church currently draws at a weekly church service. The parking needs for hosting performances, Leonard said, would generally be on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights – and occasionally on Sunday afternoons.

Incorporated in 2007 as a nonprofit organization, Blue Water has presented more than 30 productions and is made up of 150-200 actors from schools all over the metro area. The group consists primarily of actors in grades 6-12, but over the past few years, Blue Water has expanded programming to include actors as young as third-grade students and as old as college students.

For its first two years, Blue Water rented space from local schools and churches before moving into an empty storefront in the Wayzata Bay Center in 2009. In 2011, the company moved into its current rehearsal studio in the Wayzata Home Center.

Contact Jason Jenkins at [email protected]