For architect Francesca Russo, the restoration of Broadway’s historic Belasco Theatre was a labor of love as well as a challenge. Working with John Darby and Tom Stein from the Shubert Organization, owners of the theatre since 1948, Russo set out a project outline and proposed a list of items that the restoration should entail. “One of the biggest things,” she says, “was to replace the side boxes that had been taken out for the Rocky Horror Picture Show, as well as recreate the proscenium arch and plaster ornamentation.”
When the Belasco opened in 1907 it was called the Stuyvesant Theatre, designed for Broadway impresario David Belasco by architect George Keister. It was state-of-the-art at the time, in spite of its Neo-Georgian architecture. To add to the intimacy of the theatre, Belasco conceived the interior as a large living room, which featured handsome woodwork, a coffered ceiling with inset glass panels, and a great deal of Tiffany glass in the lighting fixtures and decorative elements such as the tops of the columns on the sides of the stage, with their bunches of stained glass grapes.
Period murals, including those by American realist painter Everett Shinn, have also been restored. “The two below the boxes on the orchestra level were missing,” says Russo. “Those in the mezzanine had been painted over in white. It looked as if someone thought that would brighten up the theatre.” Art conservationist Jonathan Sherman oversaw the restoration of the murals, meticulously removing the white paint. “The varnish had protected them,” Russo explains.
“It acted as a separator from the over-painting.” Some on the murals were painted on canvas and able to be repositioned during the renovation, while those on the lower lounge level depict scenes from the Wagnerian opera, Rienzi.
For the theatre’s new color palette, Russo looked to the old for inspiration, checking the tones of the murals, and investigating colors on the walls. “The original ceiling was there but needed to be repainted,” she says. The end result is a blend of terracotta, verdigris, and wood graining. What the architect calls, “a very warm palette of earthy, artist colors.” The terracotta is carried through in Arts and Crafts/William Morris-style wallpaper, while accents to the multi-hued paint comprise washes, glazes, and aluminum leaf with shellac to turn it “gold.”
The original aisle-end casting for the seats was found, and recreated for the new seats by Irwin, upholstered with custom fabric for the seats. “There is the same rake the seats,” adds Russo. “Minor adjustments to create more headroom under the lower boxes for people to exit.”
There are new custom-designed carpets as well, in fields of gold with terra cotta and blue green accent colors.” Russo gave the color palette to Rose Brand, who worked with Hudson Scenic to create to create the main curtain with painted valence, and box curtains that have painted valences as well.
At the end of the day, Russo and the Shubert Organization should be congratulated on the museum-like quality of this $14.5 million restoration that has brought the Belasco back to its former grandeur and certainly one of the prettiest theatres in the world.