Home Renovation

by Michael S. Eddy

The Atlantic tore out everything for the renovation, leaving only the walls and roof.
The Atlantic tore out everything for the renovation, leaving only the walls and roof.
The Atlantic Theater Company renovates its mainstage space

The Atlantic Theater Company (ATC) recently completed a massive adaptive reuse renovation of its mainstage space, The Linda Gross Theater, located in a former church annex built in 1854 in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. When Atlantic, founded in 1985 by David Mamet and William H. Macy, moved into the space in 1990 it was already a theatre so they did minimum renovations, mainly addressing putting in a grid system along with some general technical housekeeping at the time. As Atlantic grew into a leading Off-Broadway company, producing more than 100 plays (including the Tony Award-winning productions of Spring Awakening and The Beauty Queen of Leenane) the need for a full renovation to their much loved home that would update the infrastructure for both the audience and the company became more pressing. Thanks to a $8.5 million capital campaign, with the City of New York as a lead funder to kick-start the project, Atlantic has been able to address the needs of their much loved home.


A view from the stage looking back over the 199 seats and the spacious new tech booth.
A view from the stage looking back over the 199 seats and the spacious new tech booth.

Atlantic is no stranger to construction, having built the Atlantic Stage Two theatre in 2006 a few blocks away from the Linda Gross, and for this project they once again worked with the theatre consulting firm of Fisher Dachs Associates (FDA) and CWB Architects, led by Brendan Coburn. Atlantic’s Managing Director Jeff Lawson coordinated the renovation and worked closely with the company’s Production Manager Michael Wade. The company’s main concern was to keep the character of the space and to maintain the relationship between the audience and the performers onstage. “It was conceived right from the start as a very practical renovation; things that needed to happen,” describes Atlantic’s Artistic Director Neil Pepe. “It was about bringing this beautiful 19th century building into the 21st century while retaining the personality of the space. We’ve always loved this theatre—the charm of the brick, the arched windows, the high ceiling. It was important to the whole company that we retain the feel of the theatre, but make it more user-friendly for the artists that work here, but especially for the audience.”

The Big Dig

“The theatre space is a rather tall room with a gable roof supported by wood hammer beam trusses and a wood plank roof,” explains Douglas Stebbins, associate at FDA. “The walls are exposed brick and the historic windows on the west side of the theatre are covered by gothic inspired solid-wood shutters. One of the major goals of the renovation was that the patrons entering the space would immediately recognize it as ATC’s cherished home.” The renovation was essentially a gut of the entire interior space, leaving only the walls and roof. Then they excavated down, creating a completely new lower level for a lobby with concession stand, dedicated public restrooms and a coat check—all of which are accessible by a new staircase or an elevator. A basement workshop, wardrobe room and storage were added as well below the space.

What is one of Pepe’s favorite aspects of the renovation? “The new lower lobby restrooms.” Now while this may sound like an odd item to highlight, it should be pointed out that for the life of ATC in this space, the audience had to go over the stage to restrooms backstage that were shared with the actors. Pepe concedes, “I suppose there was a certain amount of charm to it, but on show after show it was hard to figure out how to leave access to get the audience over or through the set to the restrooms. We now have the freedom to have a full stage to design what we want, and not need to build it as a public space and the actors not be running into audience members as they are getting ready to go on. That’s a huge change for everyone.”

To gain more space for the Linda Gross Theater, the Atlantic excavated down, gaining a whole new level.
To gain more space for the Linda Gross Theater, the Atlantic excavated down, gaining a whole new level.

The new basement almost doubles ATC’s square footage without altering the overall appearance of the building nor losing the character of the interior. “It just feels great to have the extra space and still feel like we did it in the confines of a historic building,” says Pepe. “We kept the rubble foundation and then underpinned beneath it with concrete. So as you’re walking downstairs, you go from brick to stone rubble to concrete and it’s really like you’re walking through history. I love that there’s a lower floor and yet I love that it blends beautifully with the history of the building. Bottom line, we got the restrooms, we’ve added lobby space for the audience, added space for work and yet not compromise the historic charm and beauty of what’s great about the theatre itself.”

 

Spatial Relations

The excavation for the lower level gave them the opportunity to make some significant changes to the upstairs auditorium as well. Since the entire auditorium floor was removed they were able to lower the auditorium by three feet. This gave more height to the space and improved sightlines, explains, Pepe. “There are tie rods at the bottom of the roof trussing that holds the building together and they were always in the sightlines, so by lowering the entire auditorium it resolved that problem. We also knocked out the back, brick wall in order to accommodate more space for the seating; the seat count was increased from 165 seats to 199 seats. We built this beautiful new back, brick wall out of a mix old brick and some oldish-looking brick.”

The company was able to gain a modest amount of new stage space—about 18 inches—but now that the 34-foot-wide by 28-foot-deep stage is 100% usable it is actually more spacious. Better stage access for entrance/exit options were also included in the renovation, too. An upstage center entrance onto the stage area was added to the existing two side entrances from backstage. There’s also now an entrance from the second-floor dressing room if needed for a two-level set.

The new back wall of the theatre includes four entrances to the stage, including one on the second level,should a set call for it. This pic was taken as the stage was set up for a dinner for donors.
The new back wall of the theatre includes four entrances to the stage, including one on the second level,should a set call for it. This pic was taken as the stage was set up for a dinner for donors.

The backstage wall also previously had a large air handler that ate space and has now been removed. In fact, the theatre originally had three different air conditioners and designers had to work around large air ducts that ran the length of the auditorium. The visible ducting has now been removed and one centrally controlled heating and cooling unit has been installed. The air delivery into the theatre space is through a plenum below the theatre seating with180 individual diffusers below the seats and as well as some large ones at the back of the building and the floor upstage.

There is now a light and sound lock between the entrance lobby and the auditorium as well as a standing-room area behind the seats. For the comfort of the audience, new seats were installed that echo the atmosphere. “The seats, which were manufactured by Irwin Seating, were made with a wood back and wood bottom,” comments Stebbins. “This was deemed important so that the seats complimented the rustic quality of the brick walls and wood ceiling.” Pepe adds, “The seats are much more comfortable and really look beautiful. We also have a beautiful front lobby; it’s much more open. I feel like the architects have done a great job in making the lobby feel larger with the height accentuated and the light coming in from the front windows. One of the cool things we were able to do was take the great, huge pine beams from the original auditorium floor and had them milled down; they are now the wood that’s on the sidewalls of the front lobby and in the downstairs lobby.”

Left to right: Ron Cephas Jones, Bob Dishy, Tonya Pinkins, Zach Grenier and Giancarlo Esposito in Storefront Church by John Patrick Shanley, which was the first production in Atlantic Theater Company’s new Linda Gross Theater.
Left to right: Ron Cephas Jones, Bob Dishy, Tonya Pinkins, Zach Grenier and Giancarlo Esposito in Storefront Church by John Patrick Shanley, which was the first production in Atlantic Theater Company’s new Linda Gross Theater.

Proper Power

With the front lobby changing, the design team was able to create a much larger technical booth. “We were able to build a much better booth,” says Wade. “We now have a set of stairs to get to the booth rather than a ladder and the square footage of the booth has been doubled.” Pepe continues, “Up in the booth there’s a walkway, it almost looks like a balcony, that comes out of the booth and goes into the front tower, which is actually one of the dimmer rooms; it really accentuates the old church/parish house architecture.”

FDA Associate Jon Sivell, who designed the lighting system for the renovation, explains. “Prior to the renovation, the company was making due with portable dimmer packs and fairly limited power capacity. The dimmer packs were in an attic space without adequate cooling, and larger shows really pushed up against the limits of this infrastructure. Adding a permanent dimming and control system along with proper HVAC and other support systems allows ATC to more fully realize their artistic ambitions without running into the really basic infrastructure constraints they were facing.”

Wade comments, “It was great working with FDA. They had some really good ideas about how to incorporate the technology changes, like the lighting system, into the space’s existing elements. It was a great working relationship with both the architect and the theatre consultant; because we were able to incorporate suggestions into the design of the space that really addressed how were going to utilize it. The biggest technical need was our electrical situation. The total power coming into the building prior to this renovation was somewhere around 400-amps. Now we have 1,800-amps coming into the building with a 192-dimmer permanent install system with ETC Sensor dimmers.”

“We worked closely with Mike Wade to understand how designers and the crew use the space and to envision how it might be used after the renovation,” states Sivell. “The desire was to balance the convenience of a centralized system with highly flexible power and data distribution. Socapex receptacles for centrally dimmed circuits flank the side and rear walls of the space, allowing for multicables to be routed across the pipe grid as necessary. Ethernet as well as 120V and 208V non-dim receptacles are included at these locations as well. An eye was kept to make sure the infrastructure would continue to be useful in the long-term as the industry moves towards using more LED sources, while still accommodating more traditional incandescent-heavy light plots. The new installed system uses ETC Sensor dimmer racks and SmartSwitch relay panels for the theatrical circuits and a Unison rack for houselight loads. Unison LCD and button stations provide houselight and worklight controls. DMX distribution is handled by a mix of ETC 1-port and 2-port portable gateways.”

The infrastructure upgrades include a system of cable passes throughout the facility, including connections to lobbies, backstage and the newly excavated basement. In addition to the dimming system there are now more general-purpose power receptacles along with company switches to handle larger temporary loads. Lex Products manufactured the new company switches and Barbizon was the systems integrator and supplied the lighting equipment.

The Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater occupies a former church annex built in 1854.
The Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater occupies a former church annex built in 1854.

Wade concludes, “The space is much easier to work in from a production point of view in a lot of ways but I really do like that we were able to incorporate a loading door. Prior to the renovation, we loaded in through a window out onto the alley next to the theatre. The door is an amazing help. It was great to be able to be part of this renovation and see the space transform technically but still be the same theatre.”

For Pepe, who has been a company member since the start and has worked in the space since they moved in, it’s also about being a part of a thriving New York City neighborhood. “One of the things that’s been heartening and exciting to me about being in the space this long is that it’s been so great to have such beautiful, historic community theatre anchored in such a thriving, residential neighborhood. I am so glad we were able to bring together the resources needed to really give the space the renovation that it deserved, both to accentuate the beauty of what the building is and to make it more user-friendly as a theatre. I’m thrilled that in this economy that we were able to do it and get it to where it is so we can present works for many, many years to come.”