Restored to Glory

by Bryan Reesman
The Longacre Theatre
Broadway’s Longacre Theatre gets a long-awaited renovation.

Restoring vintage Broadway theatres is a slowly rising trend, one that can be linked to the area’s rising fortunes over the last several years. The Winter Garden Theater at 50th Street and Broadway was renovated in 2001, and The Ethel Barrymore Theatre followed suit in 2004. The latest theatre on the Great White Way to get a facelift is the Longacre Theatre at 220 West 48th Street, and it’s getting a lot of attention.

“The big focus of this renovation was to make the patron experience more comfortable and adding lounges and the additional restrooms,” sums up Michael Kostow, principal for Kostow Greenwood Architects, who worked on the project and had previously renovated the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park.

“We made the seating a little more comfortable, addressed the sightline problem in the mezzanine” — for which the theatre was infamous — “and although we had done accessibility improvements for the disabled, we did some more of that during the renovation,” reports John Darby, vice president of facilities for the Shubert Organization, which owns the Longacre Theatre. “We greatly increased audience amenities, such as refreshment bars and restrooms, and made it more usable for today’s theatre technology. It’s a shoehorn trying to get a lot of these shows into these old Broadway theatres, but there are some things you can do to ease that. We did certain things, updated the theatre technology and made sure things could fit.”

The house of the newly renovated Longacre
Accommodating Modern Audiences
There were approximately 400 people involved in the nine-month restoration of the Longacre Theatre that ran from July 2007 to April 2008. That number includes everyone from design professionals to stagehands to in-house people at the Shubert Organization who directed and managed the project. Shubert’s principal project manager was Bern Gautier. Electrical was handled by Jordan Daniels Electrical Contractors, plaster work was handled by EverGreene Painting Studios and the decorative painting was done by Ernest Neuman Studios.

“The whole process took about two years,” explains Kostow, “and part of the reason for that is that we started the back of house renovation, and then they had a show [Talk Radio —ed.] come in for a few months. We had to work around the show, and then we started up again. After the show went out, we got into the real meat of the renovation. During  the time the show was running we were doing the drawings for it and preparing all the documentation so that when it closed we could start construction right away.”

“All the decorating is probably more typical of the era,” states Darby. “In the lower points of the Broadway theatres’ history during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, when things were pretty down, a lot of that stuff had just been painted out. We did some research into the original finishes. We didn’t do a purist kind of restoration, but we took that as a starting point and redid the type of finishes that were there before the type of treatments were done.” They used what looks like gold leaf (but is actually Dutch metal), and “a lot of the glazing techniques and a lot of the decorative painting techniques that were used at the time these theatres were built.” The Longacre was dated from 1913.

A section of the detailed architectural work in the proscenium that was restored
Darby estimates the cost of the renovation at approximately $12 million, with substantial portions of the budget going to the expansion of lounge and restroom facilities underneath the orchestra and the creation of them above the second balcony (which together totaled nearly a third of the cost), as well as electrical renovation (another 10%), plasterwork ($1 million just for base plaster and base paint), and redoing the building’s HVAC systems. They more than doubled the space of the lower level lounge and restroom facilities to 2,200 square feet, but to do so they had to dig down through bedrock, “so there was a lot of excavation of the worst kind before we could even start building out the new space,” says Darby.

The creation of facilities in former storerooms above the second balcony was done so “balcony patrons don’t have to schlep all the way down to the basement,” he says. “They can just go up one set of stairs to right above them where there is a refreshment bar and restrooms.”

Throughout the theatre, newer and thicker seats were installed, with slightly more knee room created, which meant approximately 20 seats were lost from the original capacity, which now stands at 1,077. “We not only replaced the seats, but did things to try to improve audience comfort,” notes Darby. “This theatre is usually used for straight plays, so the orchestra pit is almost always covered. If for some reason it was ever opened up, the capacity would be a little less.”

Making It Pop
The last Longacre renovation occurred at the latest in the early ‘80s. “I think what they did before was just pretty much painted it a neutral gray, and it didn’t really accentuate a lot of the architectural details,” remarks Kostow.

Every piece of decorative plasterwork in the theatre was fully re-treated
“There was also a lot of failing plasterwork in here that everyone was cognizant of, and to commit more extensive, more expensive paint treatments back then just didn’t make sense if you couldn’t fix the plaster underneath,” reports Shubert’s Principal Project Manager Bern Gautier. “That justified a less expensive, easier paint job. Not now, not here. We re-treated every flat and decorative plaster surface in the theater. Much of it, especially in the stairwells and in the ceilings, had failed to the point where, after you took the thin white coat off, you could rub your finger across it and the sand would just fall out, just like a sandbox. There was no integrity to it at all.”

“What we did in terms of the finishes has really highlighted the architectural detail, using old techniques of leafing and glazing to really make it sparkle,” says Kostow. The color scheme was changed from gray and red to green seating and a Tuscan red, terracotta-ish color for the drapes and as part of the paint scheme. The color choices were not based on historical precedent but what everyone agreed would look good, and indeed, the final result looks spectacular.

According to Kostow, the ceiling was highlighted in the same way as the other architectural detail. One structural element they had to contend with was large air-conditioning registers.

“We created ornamental panels that hid the air conditioning vents and incorporated them into the detail of the ceiling pattern,” Kostow explains. “That was great and made a huge difference in the room. The other thing we did was went back to a more decorative chandelier design. I think the original chandeliers had been taken out a number of years ago, and they had two big, modern fixtures, like a big ring of light. We went back to the older style, a more traditional style of chandeliers, which also added a lot of sparkle to the room.”

Another area that needed sprucing up was the face of the balconies, which had been covered up by panels. “When we removed them there was a lot of ornament underneath that had been damaged, and they were restored,” remarks Kostow. “All of the balcony faces were restored and new lighting rails were put in there. We did augment the lighting capability, and the follow spot booth was enlarged. We didn’t really change the acoustics of the room, but that was good. I know a number of actors have commented that they like playing there because the audience seems very close to the stage. I think the acoustics were fine the way they were. We didn’t add any sound systems or anything like that.”

Audio and lighting company Acoustic Dimensions did do some testing and readings. Kostow Greenwood kept the baseline information, but they did not need to alter the acoustics of the house. They did need Acoustic Dimension’s help in isolating some of the mechanical noise, “but those are normal things that we deal with.”

Take It to the Streets
The architects did restore the outside of the building — restoring the façade and adding new marquees and signage. “It was really a complete transformation of the whole structure,” declares Kostow. “The outside was pretty much cleaning up what was there. We didn’t really add to it. The windows were stripped down and repainted, so there weren’t new windows, and the existing terracotta panels were cleaned. The façade was actually in pretty good shape. It just looked a little dirty and rundown, but now it looks really terrific. The original marquee was taken off the building in an earlier renovation, so we redesigned the marquee utilizing the original structure that was remaining, but did something that was more in keeping with the feeling of the building then.”

The restored Longacre Theatre has drawn acclaim from the New York Times, and the first show to play there since it reopened — namely Boeing Boeing with Christine Baranski, Mark Rylance and Bradley Whitford — has done good business. While the Shubert Organization does not anticipate to recoup its renovation investment, the project keeps with its mission statement of perpetuation of the arts and a personal goal to run their theatres in a first-class manner. Enthuses Darby: “It’s great to have done a job like this and then have a show that’s doing really well.”