It seemed as if Cats might never leave, but when the long-running Broadway musical finally packed its bags and vacated the Winter Garden Theatre after a 20–year run, the venue was in dire need of a total restoration before the new tenant, Mamma Mia! could move in. New York City–based architect Francesca Russo came to the rescue, arriving on the scene with Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, the Music Box, the St. James, and the Manhattan Center’s opera house already on her roster of completed theatrical restoration projects.
Located at 50th and Broadway, slightly uptown from many of the other Broadway houses, the landmark Winter Garden belongs to the Shubert Organization. It was built in the late 1880s as the American Horse Exchange, and became known as the Winter Garden following a renovation by Albert Swasey in 1911. The interiors were green and white, complete with a runway for burlesque shows.
The theatre was renovated again in 1923, by theatrical architect Herbert J. Krapp (the Shubert’s "house" architect), who brought in the Neoclassical elements that decorate the Winter Garden’s elegant interiors today. These include intricate plant and floral motifs, angels, cherubs, and gold leaf. Krapp also added false beam enclosures where necessary to make the interior design symmetrical.
"The theatre had been painted all black and turned into a junkyard for Cats," says Russo, as we sat in the newly repainted auditorium, resplendent in a warm palette of gold, dark cream, and mulberry. "The sets had been glued to the walls, and not only were the architectural details painted over, many of them were gone entirely. Much of the plaster work had , fallen out or been damaged or removed."
There was also a huge hole in the bas-relief area over the stage, used in Cats, when Grizabella ascends to heaven. Fortunately the plaster cutout had been saved and the decorative painters from EverGreene Painting Studios in New York City were able to salvage it and repaint it, as part of their painstaking process of scraping and repainting the entire theatre.
two views of the theatre before restoration: the lobby, top, and the theatre, above
Russo’s goal was to restore the decorative plaster and paint, as well as replicate the draperies and seating upholstery in the style and fabrics of the 1920s. "The interiors were originally exuberant with rich colors and a lot of detail," she notes, explaining that the colors she chose for the restoration were influenced by her historic research on the theatre, but that the palette was deepened this time around. "There is more light in the theatre now, and the original colors were too pale. By deepening them, the effect is the same as in the 1920s when the theatre was much darker," she adds.
two more pre-renovation views
For lighting fixtures in the theatre, Russo restored what was still there and ordered custom replacements to match the originals. These include unusual hanging crystal baskets, beaded crystal balls, and lobby chandeliers. The large central chandelier for the auditorium was not replaced, as a large technical platform has been placed under the restored central dome. Five original brass sconces on the back wall of the auditorium were restored and returned to use.
In terms of theatrical lighting and sound, the Winter Garden is strictly a four–wall rental house, with all systems brought in by the current tenant. However, as part of this renovation process, the New York City office of Barbizon Lighting installed a new architectural dimming system including two ETC Unison dimmer racks and one 4–slider/seven–button control station located backstage. This system is only used for the house lighting, and cannot be tied into the theatrical control console. The dimmer racks have a bypass option board for when the emergency lighting system kicks in.
Barbizon also installed a power distribution infrastructure, all manufactured by SSRC. This includes nine drop cord panels mounted to Unistrut located in the fly loft so that theatrical dimmer racks (that come in with any given show) can be hoisted up, rolled underneath the drop cord panel, and use pigtails patched to the dimmer rack. There are also 23 custom outlet boxes with two 6–circuit Veam connectors located throughout the theatre. The Veam panels and connector strips are tied to the drop cord panels, creating the power distribution infrastructure.
"This design eliminates the need to run multicables throughout the theatre," explains Barbizon’s Jeff Seigel, who worked on the project with Ted Jacobi, project distribution. "There is no house dimming system, other than architectural," Seigel adds. "All dimming must be rented, and there is no DMX distribution or ethernet. They usually run the board from backstage or the fly loft.." Barbizon’s project manager was Craig Fox; Brian Fasset was the field service technician who did the turn-on and programming.
The new Winter Garden seats by Irwin Seating are ergonomically designed with "shoulders" to articulate the backs. The upholstery fabric by the New York City-based DesignTex is a soft, synthetic velvet fabric, espresso or rich umber in color. The seats are placed with as much leg room as possible, with a spacious 34" to 35" from seat back to seat back, much more room than the original layout would have offered. In its current configuration, the theatre has 1,482 seats.
The custom carpets by Bloomsburg Carpet in Bloomsburg, PA, echo the palette, with a foliage pattern combining the mulberry of the walls with umber and raw sienna. "All of the colors in the theatre are artists’ colors, and colors of the earth," says Russo, who opted for tertiary tones, rather than primary or secondary colors.
The draperies in the theatre, made by I. Weiss (based in Long Island City, NY) with fabric by DesignTex, were custom-made and based on designs found in historic photographs of the theatre. They are a synthetic damask-style, flame-retardant fabric in the mulberry and umber shades found in the wall decor. "We worked hard to make al the colors blend together," says Russo. The house curtain, also made by I. Weiss but not yet installed, will match the other draperies. Vinyl wall panels by Wolf Gordon (a New York City–based firm with showrooms in New York, LA, and Chicago) also match the drapery fabric.
There is also some gilding as Russo explains, "to highlight some of the architectural detail and give it a little glow." The gold leaf is toned down so as not to be too brassy in tone, and blend in with the earth tones and faux marble of the interiors. As a nod to the classic interiors, she even added gilt frames to the exit
Walls were added in certain places and some of the interior areas were redesigned for comfort and modern-day use. For example, a new wooden wall was added at the back of the orchestra level with removable panels to allow wheelchair access (some seats are removable as well for additional access). Another example is the house left wall, which was actually recreated. "We moved the doors a little in order to create a larger space with a desk for the doorman," says Russo, adding that before the restoration there was just room enough for the doorman to sit on a stool.
In the balcony, Russo used a heavy-duty fabric, similar to the seating upholstery, to create a draped effect behind the last row of seats, removing the plywood panels that had been there for Cats. Another new wall (house right) was put into place to create a soundproof and lightproof enclosure for a new lounge. "In the past this was an open area with some seats and an open bar," notes Russo, who carried the classical interiors into the new bar. The house-right wall was then made to look like the new one, house left. "Landmarks approved the designs, even though it was hard to imagine when the theatre was all black," notes Russo.
There is also a small enclosed bar at the back of the orchestra level, cleverly designed with pull-down acoustic shades (like window shades) made by Drapery for Business of Long Island City, NY. To create the shades, pieces of the theatrical drapery fabric were adhered to a strong rubberlike material from American Acoustical Products, a Dayton, OH, company that provides vibration and noise control solutions.
The walls of the restrooms on both levels were also extended, allowing for larger, more comfortable facilities. The ladies room is quite elegantly designed. The wallpaper ranges from hand-painted, raw silk textured paper (by Wolf Gordon) to floral patterns in a mixture of gold and terra cotta. To make the restrooms larger, the architects incorporated voids between the theatre and the building next door on the balcony level, and used old shaftways and odd little spaces on the street level.
The lobby today
"One of the most fun things for me was the lobby," says Russo, who describes what she found as "contemporary, with bland gray marble." In order to make the lobby a plausible transition, design-wise, from the street to the theatre, Russo added architectural details, including new marble, a new terrazzo floor with a classical rosette design, columns with gold leaf capitals, and a recessed circular dome with a chandelier. The color palette is the same as inside the theatre, yet the tones are not as deep, to help reinforce the transitional feel.
Additional spaces were also created for the production crew of shows coming into the theatre. One of these is a space under stage left (to the left of the trap area). This had been a mechanical room but the equipment there was outdated and removed. The new mechanical equipment is now stored in a fourth–floor space in a sister building and on the rood of the theatre, leaving the old space free to be used for costume storage, a chorus room, or other production needs. In addition, a production loft was built into what was once roof space, above the restrooms house right.
The end result is a theatre with an elegant, classic look, "very much a feeling of what it was like in the 1920s," says Russo. "There is a historic feel to it. This was a $10–million restoration," she adds. The project took two years from feasibility to completion, with the construction period stretching from September 2000 through September 2001. "We worked hard to make everything very cohesive," says Russo, who is very understandably proud of her work at the Winter Garden. "They gave me pretty free rein," she says of the Shubert Organization, which also owns the Music Box. "That one is a little jewel," Russo adds. "But if the Music Box is a princess, this one’s a queen."
All photos courtesy the Shubert Organization; color photos by Whitney Cox for the Shubert Organization