After 15 years of neglect and deterioration while sitting empty, the Biltmore is now the sparkling new Broadway home of Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC), a non-profit theatre company that spearheaded the $31 million renovation of this charming Broadway house. Under the leadership of artistic director Lynne Meadow and executive producer Barry Grove, the award-winning Manhattan Theatre Club has been in the forefront of American theatre for the past 33 years, and the Biltmore is the latest jewel in its crown. MTC also produces subscription seasons in two spaces on the lower level of City Center, making the Biltmore, on the corner of 47th Street and 8th Avenue, its third venue.
One of six theatres built by the Chanin brothers in the 1920's, the Biltmore was designed by the prolific theatre architect Herbert J. Krapp, with a single balcony, 1,000 seats, and a color scheme of cerise and brown when it opened on December 7, 1925. It was used as a legitimate theatre off and on until the late 1980s — Neil Simon's Barefoot In The Park was among the long-running tenants, and the Biltmore was notably the home for the original Broadway production of Hair in the late 60s . The theatre closed in 1987 following a ravaging fire, and the subsequent years saw rain and vandalism add to the general deterioration of the building.
Fortunately the auditorium of the Biltmore had been landmarked just before the theatre closed, saving it from the wrecker's ball. When Manhattan Theatre Club decided to look for a Broadway theatre, the Biltmore was not high on the list due to its condition. “We were working with MTC to help find a space,” recalls Duncan Hazard, project architect for Polshek Partnership of New York City, the architects for the Biltmore renovation. “I was at the theatre watching Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh [at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre] and had gone outside to get a breath of fresh air. I noticed I was staring across the street at an old derelict theatre, the Biltmore.”
Hazard then called Michael Moody, production director and director of capital projects for MTC and asked if they had considered the Biltmore. Moody replied that the theatre's condition and its long, narrow shape had pushed it out of the running. “We looked at the Biltmore years ago and there were never enough seats close enough to the stage for us and there weren't enough bathrooms,” says Moody. “It wasn't until Duncan Hazard showed us that it could work, that we considered it. We came back in and we started asking how can we make this work.” Hazard notes, “I was convinced it could work.” He sent a drawing of his idea, moving the back wall forward to reduce the size of the auditorium, to Lynne Meadow. “She liked it and the project got started,” Hazard adds.
“Only the auditorium, the two main staircases, and a historic mezzanine corridor were landmarked,” the architect explains. “Our proposal was to radically change the shape of the auditorium by bringing the back wall forward, but only so far forward to not disrupt the ceiling dome feature. Landmarks found that acceptable,” says Hazard. By bringing the back wall in, the audience was moved closer to the stage and the seat count was reduced to 650, creating a very intimate house. “We spent a lot of time looking at both levels,” says associate Barbara Spandorf, project manager with New York City-based firm Fisher Dachs Associates (FDA). “The project ended up with us excavating under the theatre — a good portion of the orchestra level had to be dug up-and it gave us a good opportunity to rethink the whole rake, which would have changed anyhow, since we changed the row-to-row depth which now is a lot more comfortable from what was in the existing theatre. We increased the rake, dropped the height of the stage by 20”, and changed the curve of the seats, making it a parabolic curve to accentuate the sightlines,” Spandorf explains. The new seats were provided and installed by Irwin Seating.
In working with principal Joshua Dachs and his team of theatre consultants from FDA, Hazard and his team, including architect Lloyd DesBrisay, were sensitive to the demands of the technical systems that needed to be installed. “We're there to accommodate the theatre,” says Hazard. “Our job is to create a pretty container for what they need. It's not two separate projects.” In any historic renovation, much thought and care is required in dealing with the existing structure, however lighting styles have changed and the technical support structure needs to be designed to accommodate the newer methods. “Typical to these old theatres the expectations for lighting were very different and so in any renovation we are introducing the balcony railing and the box boom positions and then you deal with the overhead or catwalk positions,” says Joe Mobilia, associate principal for FDA. “In these historic theatres you are sort of damned if you do and damned if don't; you need to accommodate those lighting positions somehow and you either do it by hanging a truss or by chopping holes in the ceiling to create catwalks. The architecture of the building will often dictate which route you choose. In the case of the Biltmore there was a dome and we could do something that made sense with the architecture as much as possible.”
What they did was install a lighting catwalk above the existing dome, which preserved the aesthetics of the ceiling while integrating the necessary positions. “We were all concerned about the penetrations of the dome: ‘Were they in the right place? ‘Were they big enough?’” says Richard Hoyse, FDA associate. “During construction we had to make some pilot holes on the dome and with a laser pointer we tested the positions to make sure they would work.” In the end, the coves were built as originally designed. “We were very happy they didn't need to hang a truss for the first show,” comments Hoyse. Mobilia provided points in the ceiling for chain hoists but hopes that they will be rarely used. “There was a desire among the design team and MTC to try to avoid having lighting trusses to hang out there, which is often the case these days. We spent a lot of time looking at the existing dome and creating the lighting positions. Still there will be shows that come along that will want to hang speakers, lights or some kind of scenery.”
Room for it all was always a challenge Hoyse says, “It took a lot of work with the architect to make sure there was space for everything. The balcony rail is a prime position. There must be over 200 wires going along the rail for both lighting and sound. There are 24 lighting circuits on the rail; there is Ethernet for DMX outputs; and there are convenience outlets. There is also power for projectors. We tried to cover it all.” All of the convenience outlets and non-dim power are tied back to ETC Sensor Racks with relay control, so all of these outlets can be controlled through the control system.
“One of the most interesting things was the way the box booms turned out,” says Dachs. “We took a very straightforward approach, which was simply to mount them in the ‘traditional’ Broadway location in the house.” The architects designed a dark red curtain behind these side lighting positions in their existing niche. “The pipe and fixtures just sort of disappear,” adds Dachs. “You might say they are hiding in plain sight, since they aren't concealed in any way, as the room is light in color and the lights are sitting in front of a dark curtain. Somehow you don't really notice them. A great trick.”
The lighting inventory is all new, purchased through Fourth Phase, who also provided systems integration for the renovation. “We worked with MTC to develop the fixture package and then they bid it out themselves,” says Hoyse. “They now own a large equipment inventory so they wouldn't need to rent very much.”
For control all of the DMX is run over Category 5 Ethernet cabling. Also, to make the space as flexible for technicians, they planned in portable DMX nodes that could be hung where DMX was needed. Hoyse explains his choices, “Instead of installing permanent nodes we ran just plain Ethernet and then we can upgrade the nodes as they come along and as we go to ACN. We will be ready to go.” There are 20 remote Ethernet stations spread around the space. There are a total of 473 stage-dimming circuits. If they need more circuits in the future, they can use ETC's Dimmer Doubling with the Source Four fixtures to increase circuits where they need them. The electrical contractor was Mass Electric & Construction Company.
The renovation brought in whole new power service, since the 1920s era theatre was never designed for the amount of dimming that is state-of-the-art today. There are now new power feeds for each of the eight dimmer racks and there are four 100A panels for utility power for automation and additional equipment that might be needed for a production. All of the stage circuits onstage are six-circuit Socapex cables that can be dropped from the grid to any onstage pipe. The company switches were manufactured by Union Connector and the onstage multicable and breakout cables are from Lex Products.
The original rigging was also replaced. The Biltmore was built as a counterweight house and still had the original rigging system in place when the renovation began. Mobilia got to work on one of the systems designed and installed by Peter Clark, and was pleased to get to restore one of their systems. “Peter Clark was one of the premiere stage equipment companies of its time,” he says. “They did all the equipment at Radio City Music Hall.” The Biltmore, like many theatres, gets fit into the building lot lines. This can make for some interesting backstage spaces. The Biltmore's stage house is in fact trapezoidal. “It has diagonal walls and normally the rigging wall is perpendicular to the proscenium and everything goes out in a straight line,” says Mobilia. “Clark did what we then did; you run your T-bars parallel to the diagonal wall and then the arbors themselves are angled out in relation to the T-bar.” Working with this arrangement takes some getting used to. comments Mobilia. “Normally, the rope that you pull on is aligned with the arbor you want to move; the way this works the rope is one set over. A frequent mistake is that you pull a line and aren't moving the set you had planned to.”
There are 40 linesets in addition to the house curtain and the fire curtain. The first 39 are parallel to the proscenium and the 40th is parallel to the upper rear wall. “We took the normal ranking of pipes parallel to the proscenium as far upstage as we could, that got us to lineset 39 and then we realized that there are certain shows that would want things as far upstage as possible even if it was at a diagonal. That gets to the back wall of the upper portion and then under that are some rope rig sets. You can hang something but you can't fly it out with the rope rigging.” They in fact re-installed the original rope pin rail for this rear, lower section. Mobilia points out that this is not the only piece of original equipment. “Like all renovations, you have to reconcile the existing structure with the new equipment. What we typically do is provide the structural engineer with load information as if the building were new. You use that as a starting point to see if the existing structure would be sufficient. There was hope early on to replace the gridiron. The existing grid consisted of steel-strap decking, which would not be our first choice in a new theatre, but that was maintained for budgetary reasons. The new loft blocks were put in the old, existing wells.” Mobilia worked with Pook, Diemont, and Ohl, Inc. (PDO) as the prime contractor for the rigging installation. The rigging equipment used in the renovation was manufactured by J.R. Clancy Inc. and I. Weiss provided the new house curtain and valance.
“The theatre does have a new guillotine-style fire curtain, which hasn't been the case of recent renovations,” explains Mobilia. “The fire curtains in New York are deluge systems and we now always try to discourage the use of deluge systems because they will eventually go off accidentally. Our friends over at I. Weiss joke that they love the deluge systems because people end up buying new house curtains,” laughs Mobilia. “I think that it's only a matter of time before everyone can have a regular non-asbestos Z-Tex type curtain. That exception was made here.” PDO provided and installed the fire curtain.
Mobilia did try to honor the history of the theatre with a small touch that ended up not working out. “One of the things that will remain a little bit of a disappointment for me is the index striplight on the rail before the renovation, which said ‘Peter Clark, New York City’ along the face of it and you could read it from the stage. I thought it would be nice in the tradition of the theatre to save that light, refurbish it and reuse it. But it got killed in the demolition and now they have a perfectly usable, new light instead. Oh, well.”
DesBrisay agrees with the need to be sensitive to the history of the Biltmore. “The challenge of the project was integrating 21st-century systems into the historic fabric of the building. Behind it is a web of electrical and electro-acoustical conduits, stage and lighting controls, and lighting, necessary to operate a modern-day theatre. Although the Manhat-tan Theatre Club focuses on spoken-word productions and the theatre was designed for an acoustical rating of NC-25, it is capable of hosting amplified musical productions,” he says.
The Biltmore is equipped with an audio infrastructure designed by Jaffe Holden Acoustics of Norwalk, CT, who also served as acousticians for the project, and installed by the New York office of SPL. “Our main design goal was to create a system that was flexible enough to allow multiple sound designers to configure the system to their liking with components that we felt would remain in favor with Broadway designers for some time,” says David LaDue, the electro-acoustic system designer. “This is a relatively small system but one that packs a punch and can handle some pretty demanding show requirements for a theatre of this size.”
LaDue points out that there are plug boxes all around the stage and catwalk, with extensive tie-lines for communication in both directions. All of the loudspeakers are portable, and easy to move around to meet the needs of different sound designers. Although the majority of the speakers are by Meyer Sound, there is rigging in place to hang additional units brought in for a specific show. There are also a total of 96 microphone lines from the stage alone. “A musical will mandate this kind of infrastructure,” says LaDue.
The in-house console is a Yamaha 02R-96 that lives in the central control booth, or can be used in a house mix area at the back of the balcony level. “This is a small console, but they can rent a larger one if needed, and they have another console they use in one of their other venues,” LaDue points out. There is also a full auxiliary system for audio in the lobby, backstage, and support areas. This is run by a custom control panel (designed by Jaffe Holden and installed by SPL: Larry Ploiti was the SPL project manager) in the control booth.
“The biggest challenge for the electro-acoustic package was getting all the conduit in there,” notes LaDue. “We had to go much further than expected and try to maintain a conduit separation for the low voltage for the audio and the higher voltage for the lighting to keep noise, especially dimmer noise, out of the system.
Mounting positions for the loudspeakers include left and right of the proscenium as well as a truss that sits in front of the proscenium for the center cluster (the truss is not used for all productions). “There was no way to hide the speaker positions,” says LaDue. “It is a landmarked room so we were limited in terms of what we could do, and the speakers do change the look, but they are all portable and can be removed.”
The decision early on to move the back wall forward had an added benefit, Moody notes. “We have enough sound separation so we can do unmiked performances without a lot of street noise so we don't need to mic everybody,” he says. “Every artist we've brought in here says, ‘oh, wow, this is fabulous!’ When you tell them we aren't miking anything, they just go wild.”
One of the most painstaking tasks of the renovation is what most audiences will see all around them: the walls and plasterwork. “The theatre was 70% destroyed,” says Hazard. A decade of water and mold damage wiped out most of the original plasterwork. “So 70% of what you see in terms of the plaster work and detail has been recreated. The remaining plaster was monitored, especially as the basement was excavated, so that the artisans at EverGreene Painting Studios in New York City could clean up the still existing plasterwork to make molds. “This allowed us to make the new look like the old,” notes Hazard.
The color palette, magnificently rendered by EverGreene, is what Hazard calls “warm but a little lighter and fresher than some of the other restored Broadway theatres. Not as heavy, and not as glazed. We looked at the designs of Robert Adams, an 18th-century classicist designer, and went with warm beige and cream tones, with gold,” he says. “The seats are a warm camel color.” There is also sky blue in the dome, and touches of red including the house curtain by I. Weiss. “This color scheme seemed right for the spirit of the theatre and MTC,” says Hazard. “And our archivists found out it is actually very close to the original.”
“We are really proud of the space,” says Spandorf. “We are really happy that MTC seems to be very happy there. It was just one of those great projects. It was a labor of love.” Moody concurs, “It was an interesting construction project. It was hard and it took a lot of work to get it all to work and fit. But we are very happy with it. Everything works great. Everybody pulled together and everybody made it work.”