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The Gift that Keeps Giving

Exterior rendering of the Public Theater
The oldest portion of the building that now houses the Public Theater was built in 1853 by John Jacob Astor to house New York City’s first public library. © Jeff Goldberg/Esto

The phased restoration of New York City’s historical Public Theater marks a milestone with completion of facade and lobby improvements.

May 21, 2013—When John Jacob Astor gifted the City of New York with its first public library in 1853, little did he know that 160 years later the brick and brownstone structure at 425 Lafayette Street would still stand as a cherished iconic building in a city predominated by towering modern structures.

That initial structure and additions built respectively in 1859 and 1890 comprise the historical landmark building that has been the home of the Public Theater since 1967, when famed producer Joe Papp saved the structure from demolition and repurposed it as a space for the performing arts.

The structure has been transformed over the past decade by a multiphase renovation by Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership), in New York City, that recently marked an important milestone with the completion of a dramatically reworked lobby, a facade restoration, and upgrades to the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems.

“Our office did a master plan in the late 1990s,” says Stephen Chu, AIA, the project designer and an associate partner in Ennead Architects. “Since then we have gone through a series of renovations to the existing building to better accommodate the theater’s needs.”

Prerenovation, the theater, with six working venues for performances, had a lobby with less than 2,000 sq ft of usable space. Adding the needed space to a historical structure with landmark status wasn’t an easy feat. Ennead developed a solution that took a page from the building’s history.

“We looked back to the historical design of the building, where a formal entry stair led to a grand lobby,” Chu explains. “By putting the stoop back on the façade we were able to reestablish the original library’s dignified entry experience, as well as reclaim lobby space that had been lost in a past renovation when the stoop was removed and the entry stair brought inside the building. Reclaiming these historical elements helped us get the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).”

Achieving the goal of bringing back the stoop was facilitated by the involvement of many city agencies, Chu says. A complicated design and construction effort to adapt the existing building to best serve its current use required approval from and resulted in collaboration with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, Department of Cultural Affairs, Department of Transportation, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. 

Rendering of the theater's three-sided stoop

The three-sided stoop was built under a revocable consent by the
city. The stoop enabled the design team to remove interior stairs
that impinged on lobby space. © Jeff Goldberg/Esto

Ennead also collaborated with Sam Schwartz, P.E., M.ASCE, president and founder of Sam Schwartz Engineering, to analyze the existing and future vehicular and pedestrian traffic patterns in order to ensure the viability of the design. The design approach of beautifying the streetscape worked hand in hand with the Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2007 PlaNYC initiative to green the streets of New York City and reimagine public spaces. (Read “Report Highlights Path to Lower Emissions,” on Civil Engineering online.)

The approval process for the stoop was arduous but worthwhile, as it added an additional 500 sq ft to the lobby.

Another challenge was the addition of a new glass and steel canopy that enhances the theater’s presence on the street, provides cover for patrons, and allows a clear view of the facade above. “The design team chose glass to allow an unobstructed view of the newly restored and lighted facade above, whether you approach the building by day or night,” Chu says.

It is supported from above by a minimal steel structure that is connected via steel supports into the building’s original beams and cast iron columns at only two points, minimizing alteration to the historic facade.

The fact that the stoop and canopy are designed with minimal contact with the facade was crucial in obtaining LPC approval and clearly defining the distinction between historical and new on the exterior.  

Inside the lobby, the team designed and engineered a new public mezzanine overlooking the main level, which contributes an additional 900 sq ft to the lobby, which is now 70 percent larger.

The original archways, which had been walled off in previous renovations, have been reopened, and stairs now lead from the expanded lobby to a new public mezzanine overlooking the main level. This new gathering space clarifies the interior and orients theatergoers by providing a visual connection to the many venues within the building. The resultant design, with its colorful red glass balcony and graphic elements throughout, “integrates modern architecture, art, and graphics into the historic fabric of the building interior,” Chu says.

Interior rendering of the theater's lobby which displays its elaborate plaster work and restored arched passageways

The lobby project included refurbishing the elaborate plaster work
and restoring the arched passageways. © Jeff Goldberg/Esto

“We really maximized the building and its footprint, retaining the grand nature of the lobby while increasing the porosity. Every square foot has helped make the lobby a gathering space, one that encourages the cross-pollination of the various audiences that are at the theater attending different performances at the same time—and not only for the theater, but also for people in the neighborhood,” says Chu.

The team faced one central challenge in upgrading the MEP systems in the structure, which was designed with minimal mechanical systems and upgraded repeatedly in the past century.

“Space, space, space, space,” says Dominick DePinto, an MEP engineer and one of the founding partners of ads ENGINEERS, in New York City. “There is just very little space in the building. You would lay something out in plan and then you go to the field and realize there was no way you could actually implement it. And then you had to redraw it and work it through.”

Not only did the team not have a building information model to work from, the existing plans were often less than helpful. “Anytime you opened a wall, there would be a surprise and you would have to make adjustments,” DePinto says.

“We wanted to consolidate the mechanicals and have some type of a central plant. In the end, actually, it became an architectural and mechanical solution,” DePinto says.

The team designed a long, narrow, three-story addition for the back of the building to house the upgraded mechanical systems. The solution also addressed the acoustic concerns of the project. Because the theater is now surrounded by condominium developments, the team needed to minimize rooftop equipment.

The new addition provided ready space for north-south runs of piping, conduit, and ductwork. The addition also houses a new cold water chiller system that supplies interior units as well as two units on the roof.

“Whatever we did on the roof, we had to be very, very concerned about our neighbors,” DePinto says. “And so we wound up with very custom gear that was designed around the acoustics. The rooftop units have very low noise fans, VFDs (variable frequency drives) on the condenser fans, double-wall heavy construction—all the things you could do to diminish the radiated noise from the units.”

Portions of the facade were actually crumbling as the project began, requiring the installation of a protective structure on the sidewalk as the renovation work commenced. The more badly deteriorated brownstones—some as much as 1 ft thick—were carefully cut out and replaced. A series of suppliers was sampled to provide the best color match possible.

The completion of the project—known to the team as phases 4 and 5—brings the project to a level of substantial completion. Earlier phases comprised the renovation of administrative spaces and dressing room and rehearsal areas as well as a roof replacement.

Because the building was designed to house library stacks, engineers found an unusually robust structural system and very high ceilings. “The walls are all masonry and extremely thick,” Chu says. “Imagine doing a lintel over a new opening and you have several feet—several feet—of brick.”

In phases 1 and 2, additional floors were added to areas of the building by connecting to the original cast iron columns. According to Chu, “the cast iron columns were filled in with concrete to increase compressive strength.”

The project was extensively phased to enable the theater to remain in operation throughout and to facilitate a budget that relied heavily on city funding, continuing the successful adaptive reuse of this important New York City landmark.



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