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Project Renews Historic ‘Little Theatre’
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Recently renovated and expanded Little Theatre on Lincoln, in New Haven, featuring a renewed arched entrance
The Little Theatre on Lincoln, in New Haven, Connecticut, was recently renovated and expanded. The historic structure features a renewed arched entrance that had been obscured by changes over the years. Untapped Resources, Inc.

A fixture in the New Haven, Connecticut, arts scene since 1924 is updated and expanded to better accommodate stage productions.

June 24, 2014—A motorist who turns down Lincoln Street, in New Haven, Connecticut, will find that the street ends at the front door of an unassuming little structure that has been a fixture in the city’s Arts District since 1924: the Little Theatre on Lincoln Street. The structure’s owner, Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES), recently completed an expansion project that breathed new life into what had been a small, outdated performance house.

What’s not immediately apparent is that the modest structure is listed in the National Register of Historic Places by virtue of the role it played in the Little Theatre Movement. As owners converted large theaters across the country into elaborate movie houses in the 1920s and 1930s, theater aficionados constructed a series of small theaters to ensure a place for live entertainment in their communities.

Also not immediately apparent is the fact that the expansion project—a relatively straight-forward two-story addition with a basement to the left of the historic structure, as well as a basement beneath the structure itself—carried outsized civil engineering challenges that garnered the project an Achievement in Civil Engineering award from the Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers.

The New Haven architecture firm Svigals + Partners designed the project for ACES, an education agency that operates magnet schools in the New Haven area. ACES uses the facility for arts education and performances. A state grant was secured to partially fund the project.

“The original theater was just a concrete shell—16-inch thick concrete walls,” says Julia McFadden, AIA, an associate principal of Svigals + Partners. “The auditorium had a shingled, gabled roof. The stage was a two-story space [with] fly space above the stage. And that was basically it for the original theater.” Staff accessed the control room for the theater by climbing a ladder located in a closet.

“[The building] was substantial and heavy. The mass of it is what helped it hold together,” notes Bruce Wujcik, AIA, a senior architect in the firm. “The main character of the building itself was the front facade, [which] has a large arch recessed into the entrance. That view was the primary historic consideration.” 

ACES pursued the addition and renovation project to bring the theater up to current standards with respect to production equipment, accessibility, and mechanical systems. The addition also included badly needed support spaces to make the theater more functional, including easier access to the control room, new dressing rooms, a scene shop, storage spaces for props and costumes, a new lobby, a freight elevator, and additional restrooms.

The original theater structure and an earlier addition that dated to the late 1980s occupied an extremely small site. The recent project consisted of placing a basement beneath the existing historic structure, removing the 1980s addition, and constructing a new two-story addition in its place, with a basement beneath.

The Little Theatre, circa 1983, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places by virtue of its place in the Little Theatre Movement

The Little Theatre, circa 1983, is listed in the National Register of
Historic Places by virtue of its place in the Little Theatre Movement.
Image courtesy of ACES & New Haven Museum

One of the key design challenges was the extremely tight site within the Orange Street Historic District. “It was always going to be difficult because there is no place to store materials, there is no place to park trucks and construction equipment. That was a construction management issue,” says Wujcik. But the site issues were complicated by poor soils and the extremely close proximity of other historic structures, including a carriage house.

The New Haven office of Langan Engineering and Environmental Services performed subsurface explorations consisting of a series of shallow test pits and 27 ft deep boreholes that encountered a deposit of fill overlying sand, with groundwater at a depth of roughly 20 ft—typical for the area.

“The site is underlain by four feet of fill and medium to dense sand; groundwater was approximately 20 feet below the existing grades,” said Christopher Cardany, P.E., LEED-AP, a senior associate and vice president of Langan who responded in writing to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. “The natural sand soils were suitable for a shallow foundation system (spread footing and a slab-on-grade floor), so the engineering challenges were mainly related to underpinning the adjacent foundation systems.”

Langan’s recommendations, offered on the basis of those findings, were for workers to underpin the foundations of the theater and two nearby buildings in areas in which the excavations would influence the existing foundations. Workers would also need to install excavation support in the form of soldier piles and lagging or soil nails with shotcrete in certain areas. Shallow foundations were recommended for new footings.

The original structure was built on a slab-on-grade, Wujcik says. “The foundations were mostly loose-packed rubble. There was really no footing underneath it. This was 1920s construction. It was a mixture of stone and bricks that were just stacked together, which was typical of the period. If you have to ... do anything [like excavation] around it, the foundation is very unstable.” Determine how to complete the necessary work around such a foundation was “the engineering feat,” he says.

The carriage house structure presented its own engineering and construction challenges. “Upon starting to excavate to underpin the carriage house foundation, the rubble foundation was discovered to be in poor condition, such that [it] raveled and could not be underpinned. The existing rubble foundation was carefully removed and replaced with a conventional concrete foundation prior to underpinning,” said Gary J. Fuerstenberg, P.E., M.ASCE, who was a geotechnical engineer with National Shoring LLC, Stonington, Connecticut, at the time of the project’s construction. Fuerstenberg, who is now a senior engineer at Haley & Aldrich, Inc., in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, provided written answers to questions posed by Civil Engineering online.

The underpinning, excavation support, and excavation contractor—National Shoring LLC, of Stonington, Connecticut—made extensive use of miniature construction equipment and manual construction methods to negotiate the 20 by 100 ft footprint of the addition and the even smaller 20 ft by 40 ft basement beneath the existing theater. “The pipe piles for the soldier pile and lagging system that supported the north excavation—outside the theater structure—were driven using a vibrating-plate compactor hanging from a mini excavator,” Fuerstenberg said. “That was an innovative approach to the small site and narrow streets—the first time I saw that in my 20-year engineering career.

“The pipe piles were fabricated in the excavation during pile driving,” he explained. “The sandy soil was conducive to vibrating the piles into the ground. The piles were abandoned in place to avoid damaging existing structures and new construction.”

All of these challenges, plus a chimney that had to be demolished and lead contamination that required abatement, combined to push construction on the project—originally slated to take one year—to nearly two.

The design team consulted with historic preservation experts to discern a likely color scheme for the renovation. After small cracks in the thick concrete walls were filled with epoxy, a thin cementitious layer was applied in a period-correct cream tone. The exterior of the addition has a similar appearance but the effect is achieved with a modern exterior insulation finishing system (EIFS).

Inside, the theater was gutted and a flexible floor and stage system were installed to provide ACES with greater adaptability in stage performances. The stage can be raised or lowered and the seating can be level or adjusted to a stepped arrangement. The updated theater also has a scene shop in the basement, a freight elevator to ferry materials to and from it, two staircases, and new dressing rooms.

“Really, the biggest challenge was the size of the site and trying to get an addition that provided useable space,” McFadden says. “We’re talking about a pretty small addition and you have a stairway at each end and an elevator. It doesn’t leave a lot of other room. It was just down to the inch, really, trying to make it work.”

On June 6 ACES conducted a ribbon cutting at the renovated theater, which will again offer live productions as it did in 1924. The roots of the historic structure are deep, the design team learned in the process of the renovation. “There are people here in New Haven who remember it through many of its past lives as a theater,” McFadden says.

“We’ve heard stories of people going there as children to see productions and people going [there] on their first dates,” Wujcik says. “We also heard that in the early days ...they used to give away dishes and plates as gifts. There are people who still have those.”


 

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