Every summer, the Delacorte Theatre hosts one of the city's most popular theatrical traditions, the New York Shakespeare Festival, fondly known as Shakespeare in the Park. A brainchild of Public Theatre/NYSF founder Joe Papp, the four-decade-old tradition of staging the classics outdoors began when Papp pulled his Mobile Theatre into Central Park in 1957 and performed for free. Five years later, Papp, seeking a permanent home for his troupe, locked horns with parks commissioner Robert Moses, who demanded admission be charged to cover maintenance fees for the theatre in the park, insinuating Papp's "radical background" had something to do with his quest for a free theatre. Unwilling to renege on his vision, Papp stood his ground, took Moses to court, and from this very public battle of wills won the right to build the Delacorte Theatre, which this season opened a new chapter in its history with a $4.35 million renovation.
"Robert Moses was against the theatre in every way," says Marty Kapell, AIA, principal of New York-based Kapell and Kostow Architects PC, the firm responsible for the recent renovation. "As a result, I think he built it in a somewhat spiteful way."
Maurice Wasserman, AIA, Kapell's partner on the project, adds. "He really built it for Joe Papp as a temporary theatre, so it was never designed to last."
Aware of the theatre's star-crossed birth, Kapell and Kostow's job was to fortify the Delacorte's architectural legacy without drastically changing the character of the theatre audiences had grown to know and love. The plan was to rebuild the infrastructure (this time to last), upgrade finishes, add amenities for audiences, and update production facilities for actors and crew, a process the Public and various city agencies were deeply involved in. "Mark Litvin, the managing director of the Public, sat in on every design and construction meeting to give his input," says Wasserman.
"And the production department also had their own list of what they wanted," adds Kapell. "Part of it was to meet the standard of production values, which are much higher now than when the theatre was built. As architects, we try to take all those wants and make some form out of it, take their utilitarian needs and transform them into a better experience all around."
That transformation was accomplished in two phases: the first, completed prior to the 1998 performance season, involved the construction of new seating, less congested walkways, and a ramp and seating for handicap accessibility; phase two, begun after the close of the 98 season and completed before the 99 opening, included the replacement of the cedar siding facade, cleaning and painting the steel lighting towers, creating new signage, streamlining concession areas built into the theatre, renovating the interior of a production area called "the shack," rebuilding the stage deck slightly higher with increased trap capacity and constructing additional production and operations spaces under the stands as well as an underground passage for the actors. Of the complex underground construction, Wasserman says, "There is a whole building under there that didn't exist before."
Although invisible to the average theatregoer, the re-engineered underground space is one of the greatest achievements of the renovation. Success, however, came after surmounting a series of unknown site problems. "None of the existing drawings showed the conditions," Kapell remembers. "We'd look for something according to the drawings and there just wouldn't be anything there. Even the electrical was in the wrong places."
Some onsite surprises included drainage problems from neighboring Turtle Pond. "They had raised the level of the water as part of the renovation of the Great Lawn and built a wall to keep water from coming into this area, but it didn't work," Wasserman explains. "When we started our construction and put new plumbing and electric lines below grade, we ran into water problems wherever we went."
Also fundamental to the renovation was an extensive electrical power distribution upgrade. "That was complicated because the theatre needed a new power transformer, but the Parks Department did not want it to be an exposed transformer and the theatre couldn't afford to bury it," says Wasserman. "So they didn't get a new transformer," Kapell continues. "But they do have additional power distribution."
On the production side, the theatre sports a new dimming system, improved access to lighting equipment, and an assistive hearing system. Other improvements include handicap accessibility and seating, new paving in the east and west yards and vomitories, and new cedar siding on the entire exterior and fences at entrance gates. The new cedar facade replaced rotting siding, the remnants of a previous renovation completed 20 years ago. "That was really just a cosmetic renovation in which they basically reclad the theatre with no thought about waterproofing or other issues," says Kapell.
Funded in large part by the City of New York, the renovation required approval by many city agencies, including the Department of Design and Construction, the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Parks Department. Sensitive to the preservation of the theatre as well as the site, the architects were meticulous in meeting city requirements, and to that end, were quick to point out that not one tree was harmed during the remaking of the Delacorte.
With the renovation complete, the spruced-up home of the New York Shakespeare Festival staged its 45th season featuring productions of The Taming of the Shrew and Tartuffe. Unlike its original construction, which was meant only as a temporary theatre, the newly refortified Delacorte seems poised to stand the test of time: a gift from the Delacorte Fund, managed by the New York Community Trust, will be used for annual maintenance of the theatre and the surrounding grounds.