Ennead Architects with Robert Silman Associates and Westerman Construction
Over the course of the past decade, Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership) has been in the process of a multi-phase renovation of The Public Theater on Lafayette Street. Much of this work has involved upgrading mechanical and theatrical systems, as well as gussying up back-of-house spaces. The most recent phase, however, which was completed in late 2012, has given the theater a new public face with a mix of historic preservation and modern intervention.
Theater founder Joseph Papp first moved his non-profit dramatic institution into its current grand Renaissance Revival edifice in 1967. The building had originally been The Astor Library—constructed by John Jacob Astor in 1853 to be the city’s first public library. It changed hands a couple of times before Papp took over, at which point the structure was on the brink of being demolished. Papp hired architect Giorgio Cavaglieri to convert the old book repository into a multi-house performing arts venue, in the process saving the building and earning it a place on the list of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Aislinn Weidele / Ennead Architects
While Cavaglieri’s redesign did the job of creating six performance spaces within the venerable shell, including the much-lauded Joe’s Pub, it had no centralized box-office and its circulation was walled off, making wayfinding difficult. Ennead’s redesign seeks to solve these problems while improving the arrival sequence and creating what James Polshek (who served in an advisory role on the project with Ennead partner-in-charge Duncan Hazard and designer Stephen Chu) called a “social mixer place” where people can gather before and after performances.
The first order of business, however, was restoring the historic facade, which had deteriorated to the point that pieces of brownstone were falling onto the sidewalk. Once that was underway, the architects looked for ways to maximize lobby space. At some point during the building’s history, the original north south–facing stoop was taken away and an interior stair was added in its place, creating a sort of Carnegie Hall syndrome where people enter, then trip up a flight of steps. Ennead brought the steps back outside, designing a modern, low profile, three-sided granite stoop sheltered by a steel and glass canopy. In order to garner the approval of Landmarks, the canopy is only supported at two points, where it needles through the facade and connects to a new built-up structural steel plate girder.
Aislinn Weidele / Ennead Architects; Courtesy Ennead Architects
Inside the lobby, Ennead added a new mezzanine level and opened up the previously bricked-over arches on the north and south walls, revealing the building’s vertical circulation stairs. The mezzanine, a steel-and-concrete-on-metal-deck platform with a glass-balustrade, attaches to imbeds in the lobby’s east masonry wall and via custom-designed collar connections to existing cast iron columns. The architects placed the new box office beneath the mezzanine and in the center of the lobby placed an ovular bar. Above the bar, suspended from a network of wires designed by Guy Nordenson, is a sculpture by media artist Ben Rubin called the Shakespeare Machine, which displays phrases from the bard’s works, selected at random by an algorithm, on LED displays.
In all, Ennead increased usable space in the lobby by 70 percent. By opening up the arches, the firm also made the space more porous and easier to navigate, a function that is also aided by new graphics designed in collaboration with Pentagram. In some places—such as within the arches where the theaters’ names are written—the design team etched graphics into the building’s architectural surfaces, creating a rare synthesis between two disciplines that do not always consider themselves kindred souls.