A Local Bank Is Converted Into a Community Theatre An urban renewal plan for the town of Bridgeport, CT, banked on a new community playhouse to help revive a once-active town square. The $2.3-million renovation project, completed in September 1999, has converted the circa-1915 People's Bank building and parts of four adjacent historic buildings into a new home for the Polka Dot Playhouse, a community institution since 1954. Designed by the Bridgeport-based architecture and engineering firm Fletcher Thompson, the new theatre actually helped save the interior details of the bank building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places but sat vacant for a decade after the downtown district's fortunes faded.
"This building is among the finest examples of small turn-of-the-century banks built in the Classical Revival style," says Bruce Heyl, AIA, Fletcher Thompson principal-in-charge. "Many aging American urban centers have grand banking halls that are no longer used for their original purposes. People have emotional attachments to these buildings, which are often significant landmarks. The Polka Dot conversion of this complex represented an opportunity to bring life back to the heart of the city, while opening the doors on a remarkable, shuttered space." Earlier in the century, Bridgeport had a thriving theatrical community with 10 downtown theatres, according to Heyl. Now the Polka Dot, sitting across from the restored McLevy Green civic park, hopes to restitch the social fabric of downtown.
The Polka Dot Playhouse was established in Stratford, CT, in 1954. Over the years it has grown from a small amateur summer stock theatre to a year-round presentation house that features Actors Equity productions of such recent shows as The Heidi Chronicles, Nunsense, Tapestry, and Forever Plaid. For more than 30 years the Polka Dot was located on Bridgeport's Pleasure Beach, an historic amusement and entertainment district set on a strip just off the mainland. In 1996, a fire destroyed the connecting bridge, which the town decided not to rebuild. When Polka Dot was searching for a new space, People's Bank offered its vacant banking hall to the theatre group rent-free for 10 years. The State of Connecticut contributed $2 million toward the theatre conversion project.
Adapting the main banking hall for use as a fully equipped proscenium theatre posed several space-planning challenges. The hall measured 37' wide by 82' long, with a height of three-and-a-half stories, "just large enough to contain the stage and auditorium," Heyl says. To provide space for offices, dressing rooms, technical support, and audience circulation and egress, several adjacent historic buildings on the block were pressed into service. A late-1800s Romanesque Revival office building to the west of the banking hall was annexed to house the theatre lobby, box office, green room, and two dressing rooms. Portions of three other buildings now accommodate a new HVAC system and fire code - mandated egress from the theatre's mezzanine.
The playhouse management's list of requirements made the technical challenges of adapting the space even more complicated. "The playhouse rejected the idea of a simple, open platform stage, insisting upon a proscenium stage with full-fly rigging," says Heyl. "It was a complicated undertaking to insert such a superstructure into the space without damaging the hall's historic fabric." The theatre company also wanted a balcony to stretch the tiny house's seating to 230. "Finding a way to move patrons up and down from the upper level mandated annexing space from the adjacent buildings," the architect says.
Because the theatre was to become a tenant of the building owned by the bank, the architects were required to protect the interior's decorative details so that they could be returned to their original state for possible future occupants. A three - bay stained-glass ceiling was preserved and covered, and blackout shades added to the facade's existing windows to create a daylight-tight space. To limit the damage to the original marble detailing of floors and walls, including stately Corinthian pilasters, the stage and superstructure were designed as a building within a building. The unified stage structure is self-supporting, with a frame of braced steel columns secured to the floor in only four places and stabilized off the existing walls in just two locations. The stage features rigging by JR Clancy with 24 linesets, a fire curtain, and a stage lift from the basement.
Side-mounted stage lights were restricted to the pilasters, where any permanent damage caused by the mountings would be least visible. The main frontlight positions are just outside a lighting and audio control booth at the rear of the balcony, and along the balcony rail. An ETC lighting equipment package includes a Sensor SR 48 dimmer rack, a Unison architectural dimmer rack, Express 250 control console with 250 channels x 1,024 dimmers, an MDD distributed DMX driver, and Source Four ellipsoidal reflectors. Additional luminaires are two Lycian followspots, 12 Altman 1k fresnel spots, and four Altman R-40 portable border lights with 250W PAR-38 lamps. "It's a modest yet versatile lighting rig that can accommodate a range of musical and comedy presentations," Heyl says. Theatrical consultant and lighting designer Gene Leiterman calls it a sort of "Broadway in miniature" setup that meets the theatre's immediate needs while incorporating room for enhancements.
With so many reflective marble surfaces, the hall "was extremely unforgiving acoustically," Heyl says. To map out a sound design, the architects collaborated with acoustic/audio consultant Gibson Associates to create 3D computer models of the hall. Acoustic panels were mounted to the front, back, and underside of the balcony, as well as in positions on either side wall close to the stage. New heat exchangers were placed in a separate building to isolate vibrations. And the distance between the mechanical room and the back wall of the stage allowed the HVAC system designers to place more than 13' of sound traps to remove noise from the airflow before it reached the hall. The audio system features a Middle Atlantic ERK4025 rack, a DDA C58-24 24 - channel mixing console, a Shure M267 eight - channel auto mic mixer, JBL Control loudspeakers, Sennheiser wireless microphones and headphones, a Symetrix voice processor, Neutrik speaker cables, Audio Technica AT 857 Ama condenser cardiomics, and Clear-Com intercom components.
The Polka Dot Playhouse received an award for adaptive reuse from the Connecticut chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Now at work on restoring Stamford's circa-1927 Palace Theatre, Heyl says the transformation of the bank in Bridgeport as an active nighttime venue only two blocks away from his firm's office is restoring pride of place to the city center. "The Polka Dot proves it is possible to convert an older building to a new use without compromising the structure's original beauty and integrity," he says.