You could literally smell the champagne aroma at Tuesday night’s gala reopening of New York City Center. Row upon row of glasses were poured just before the doors opened to reveal Ennead’s $56 million renovation of the beloved hall. Backstage, wide-eyed dancers and musicians rushed with palpable pre-performance angst. Duncan Hazard, Ennead’s partner in charge of the restoration, gave us a whirlwind tour before the curtain went up.
Built in 1923 as a meeting house for the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, the building was purchased by the city in 1943. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia wanted a theater for the people, one that rivaled the city’s best venues for quality but not price. Here, Paul Robeson shared an historic interracial kiss with Uta Hagen in Othello, Balanchine brought Mariinsky flair to the New York City Ballet, and Beverly Sills’s performance as Cleopatra at City Opera made her a star.
Both New York City Ballet and City Opera decamped for Lincoln Center in the 70s leaving the poor house in something of a shambles. The management went about restoring the repertoire well before the building. Hugely successful series programming, such as Encores! and Fall for Dance sustained audiences and coffers. The Center is now a major venue for dance and concerts. Jazz at Lincoln Center will soon be partnering up. With the beleaguered City Opera now in its gypsy season, unable to afford Lincoln Center, perhaps they too should consider a prodigal coming home–if there’s room.
Originally built as a lecture hall, the sight lines for the balconies were meant to focus on a single speaker, not an opera or dance. The first order of business for Ennead was to replace the mezzanine and balcony flooring and stagger the seating. Seat width went from 17 inches wide to 22 inches.
Over the years multicolored stenciling and plasterwork were whitewashed and accented in gold. Historic black and white photographs didn’t reveal much, so Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates conducted an analysis of the original colors . Li/Saltzman served as preservation consultants and over a dozen painters from Creative Finishes spent weeks on their backs restoring a ceiling which had absorbed years of tobacco smoke, layers of shellac, and at least one restoration effort conducted by a high school class.
Ennead contemporarily incorporated an original Moorish geometric star motif throughout: in millwork beneath the Grand Tier bar, through patterns in the arched glass marquee, and in a trellis-like screen that melds with video screens at the downstairs lobby.
Workers completed backstage renovations last year and this year they finished the front of the house in a mere seven months. With minutes to go before opening, Hazard sat back in a mezzanine seat admiring the hard work. “The element of the new shouldn’t be from the moon,” he said. “When people return they should still recognize this as the City Center, but City Center to the Nth degree!”
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