The Brooklyn Academy of Music Refurbishes a 120-year-old Theater to Be More Inclusive of the Community It Serves

Brooklyn Academy of Music, Mitchell Giurgola, Metamorphosis Awards, theater

1st Place, Whole Building

The 120-year-old building that houses the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) began as a burlesque house at the turn of the 20th century. As burlesque fell out of favor, the original 24,000-square-foot, 3-story building became a legitimate theater but soon was overshadowed by Broadway, so it fell into disrepair. The theater was revived in the 1950s and ’60s as a movie theater.

But, in the late ’60s, Brooklyn’s downtown experienced a mass exodus, leaving the theater vacant, too, for about 20 years. Then, in 1987, Brooklyn Academy of Music Founder Harvey Lichtenstein discovered this lost treasure. “The theater had been boarded up and, on a shoestring budget, the Brooklyn Academy of Music renovated the theater for one particular opera and that, all of a sudden, turned everything around,” explains Paul Broches, FAIA, partner with Mitchell Giurgola Architects LLP and partner in charge of the theater’s most recent renovation. “It still looked like the compelling wreck it had become after it had been abandoned, but everyone got excited about the theater and BAM put it to use again. Everyone fell in love with the theater’s remarkable distressed character.”

With a minimal budget to make changes, the architect in 1987 installed bench seating and changed the rake of the theater from a proscenium arch to a thrust theater, moving the stage forward of the proscenium arch, which created an intimate connection to the audience. “They did all of this by necessity for too little funding so, in the early 2000s, everyone knew the theater needed additional improvements and that’s when Mitchell Giurgola came in,” Broches recalls. “We began with a planning study to see what was wrong with the theater and what needed to be improved and how to do it without destroying the character of this much-loved performance hall.”

With little change to the building’s footprint, the theater and its ancillary programs have more than doubled in size and has been renamed BAM Strong, incorporating what is now known as the Harvey Theater, named after Lichtenstein.

PHOTOS: ALBERT VECERKA/ESTO; BEFORE PHOTOS & DRAWINGS: Mitchell Giurgola Architects LLP; THEATER PHOTO: ELLIOTT KAUFMAN

A CEREMONIAL EXPERIENCE

Among the first items to address when Broches and his design team at Mitchell Giurgola Architects began studying the building was its history of segregation. “When the building was built, it had two different stairs to get into theater. One stair would lead patrons through a lobby and into the elite orchestra seating. The less wealthy had to enter through a long stairway off the sidewalk, bypassing the lobby and traversing up four flights of stairs to the upper balcony,” Broches explains. “We were faced with this issue, which had no sense of equity and also provided no access for the disabled.”

One of the design team’s challenges was to develop a ceremonial stair for everyone. Additionally, an elevator was needed to reach all four levels.

“One of BAM’s board members at every meeting would say, ‘We need to improve the user experience for everyone. We want our guests to feel great the minute they walk through the door and to be filled with anticipation!’ That was really a driving force for the ceremonial stair,” Broches says.

After much consideration, the design team opted to transform a small leftover patch of ground behind the building into the new stair.

“It was not really clear why that small space was there. In the end, we decided it was probably a result of three different properties coming together and making an odd-shaped void,” Broches asserts. “We eventually came up with the concept for the stair that would rise through a kind of sleeve. Climbing the stair became a wonderful opportunity to transform the experience of being at the theater.”

In addition to the new ceremonial stair, the redesigned lobby also transforms theatergoers’ experience. Mitchell Giurgola Architects’ team utilized a 20-foot-wide vacant lot owned by the theater next to the existing lobby to double the lobby’s size and integrate an art gallery into the additional space. Above the art gallery, a sculpture terrace provides another place in which guests can mingle and enjoy art.

“BAM has a number of venues and wants to have an art program in all of them,” Broches explains. “For each of them, they will commission an art project and, if possible, have a gallery space that can be used for changing exhibitions. Currently there’s a project to install a commissioned artwork on the newly created sculpture terrace. BAM is a continually evolving institution, which is what makes it exciting.”

Once the ceremonial stair, expanded lobby and artwork improved the visitor experience, the design team knew the Harvey Theater’s seating also had to be upgraded. Broches notes: “We changed the rake of the seating to better the sightlines and we increased the row-to-row spacing between the seats. The earlier spacing left inadequate leg room. Moving in front of other patrons was challenging. Changing the row-to-row spacing is quite a technically challenging undertaking but together with the specification of new upholstered seats we were able to improve comfort, make it code-compliant and improve sightlines.” The theater consultants on the project played an important role in accomplishing these transformative changes.

The team also introduced vomitories at the lower orchestra level so people could enter the orchestra seats from the main lobby. “That helped to distribute the number of theatergoers so they could move in and out of the theater more comfortably and also in a code-compliant way,” Broches says. Despite all the changes to seating, the design team was able to maintain the 850 seats that had been in the theater when the project began.

To bring the Harvey Theater into the 21st century, Mitchell Giurgola Architects introduced 3D cinema and surround sound. The challenge, however, was maintaining the beloved distressed appearance. “We wanted to keep the peeling paint, going back generations to the early 1900s, while installing very contemporary theater technology,” Broches says. “There was never the expectation for a natural acoustic hall, but there was the challenge of 3D cinema, where surround sound is critical, so the whole room behaves like a sound chamber.”

Broches says BAM performs a lot of spoken-voice and musical theater. In each case, different acoustical requirements are needed related to amplification. “We introduced a new amplification system so when you have just voice, you want the room to be pretty lively, and when you have a lot of music, the room can be a little quieter. We introduced sound baffles all around the back walls that are drawn up almost like a window shade, so we could change the acoustic values in the space by moving those baffles up and down—again, without altering the appearance of the hall.”

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

As the team began working on its design solutions, it only had the drawings from the 1987 architect on which to rely. Although that architect had uncovered most of the existing building’s problems, not discovered was a basement beneath the ground-floor lobby. “It was only after we had been working on the project for quite a while we discovered a void below the first-floor slab,” Broches recalls. “It turned out this basement was not properly supported, so, when the project was pretty far along, we had to go back down into that void space and figure out how to support the floor above it more adequately.”

The void space is only 5-feet high, so it is not being used. However, a trap door was created in the ticket space to allow access.

In addition, there had been a party wall between the theater building and the vacant lot next door, which became the expanded lobby/ art gallery. Broches notes: “We knew there had been another building in that lot, probably a row house because the lot was only 20-feet wide. The party wall had five wythes of brick and was not as stable as we would’ve liked so that had to be reinforced.”

The exterior of the building had an iconic appearance with its arched window and supposed stone façade, so Mitchell Giurgola Architects’ team intended to fully restore it. However, while doing probes and studying the surfaces, the team discovered the façade had not been built as expected. “What looked like a stone façade was actually totally false,” Broches reveals. “It was cement plaster that was made to look like stone and the cornices were—we don’t really know what they were originally—but over time they had been replaced with cobbled-together wood and sheet metal, and yet it still all looked terrific from a distance.”

The team removed and replaced pieces of the building that could not be saved or had previously been restored poorly. Because the building was not a landmark, it didn’t have to be meticulously restored; however, the team still wanted to maintain its iconic look. “The fake stonework and plasterwork were in poor condition and the budget was rather limited for what we could do, so BAM was on board to install a waterproof coating over the entire exposed façade along the street front and the sidewall over the sculpture terrace,” Broches says. “We decided we should not try to simulate the colors that were there before because that would be a false enterprise; instead, we picked a color together with the client, and a charcoal color was the outcome.”

The waterproof coating protects the façade properly for the first time in many years, a key to the building’s durability and sustainability. The restoration of the exterior envelope necessitated the involvement of an expert restoration consultant and experienced masonry contractors. Meanwhile, Broches believes the charcoal color gives the building a stronger presence and unifies the exterior unlike the varied colors of the original. “The charcoal also reflects the light nicely; at night, the building looks a bit mysterious and has a theatrical presence,” he says.

The team replaced the original wood windows with new custom wood windows that resemble the originals. As with the masonry work, the replacement windows meet current energy requirements.

Finding space for vertical shafts—for a new elevator that now can be used by all patrons and new air-conditioning ducts—was extremely challenging because the team had to avoid interfering with much-needed programming spaces. “The site is tiny, but the program is really demanding,” Broches points out. “The client didn’t want to give up any space or lose programmed activities but also recognized the need for a proper mechanical system. We overlaid the floor plans on one another to find a continuous vertical shaft through all floors with the least loss of usable floor area. That was a big challenge, very common with older buildings.”

Key players in this effort were the mechanical engineering and structural consultants who had the patience and skill to explore and evaluate options. Ultimately, a location was found with landings adjacent to the stair landings.

Mitchell Giurgola Architects was able to bring the sparkle of Broadway to Brooklyn when the design team learned BAM had purchased the first-floor retail space of the condominium building next to the vacant lot that became the expanded lobby/art gallery. The retail space has been conceived as a café. “BAM wanted to bring the theater to the street, welcoming all to have some interaction with it,” Broches explains. “That was really the genesis of the canopy that wraps around the entire project and onto the side street. The canopy is about 180-feet long and its purpose is a little bit like the Broadway marquees that are so exciting. We wanted to bring some of that to Brooklyn. The marquee features sparkly lights above and below in the sidewalk. It unifies the café, art gallery and theater. When people walk down the street, they experience BAM as almost a block long, not three smaller properties.”

Unfortunately, because of COVID, BAM currently isn’t utilizing the café space. The pandemic also has had a negative impact on the theater itself, which opened after Mitchell Giurgola Architects’ renovation in October 2019. “The theater shut down when New York shut down in early March 2020,” Broches recalls. “They now are planning to reopen this winter, so there will have been a long hiatus.”

“The confidently modern design elements and functional improvements are elegantly yet strikingly juxtaposed with the historic fabric and patina, creating an uplifting contemporary experience for visitors and users.”

Marcy Wong, partner, Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects, Metamorphosis Awards Judge

A TRUSTING CLIENT

The Brooklyn Academy of Music enjoys national recognition, but it’s also very much a com- munity theater that relates very strongly to its Brooklyn roots. The theater’s neighborhood has become a cultural district, which includes other performance venues, like the Theatre for a New Audience and BRIC.

“The comeback and evolution of the neighborhood since the late 1960s and BAM’s role in promoting it and reflecting the different values of its constituencies has been extremely important,” Broches says. “I also think that BAM’s engagement with community has been an important factor in the design. The theater experience is not just about passing through a set of doors to an inner sanctum performance space. The experience extends out onto the street. The wider lobby, art gallery, eventual café, sculpture terrace—which is visible from the street—are all ways in which the theater can reach out and embrace all members of the community. That is part of BAM’s mission that the project seeks to promote.”

Broches notes he has been fortunate to work on a number of projects in his career that have been particularly exciting in terms of the design challenges and rewarding because of the interaction and relationship with the client. BAM is one of them. “I am convinced that successful civic architecture is most likely to happen with a ready client,” he says. “The ready client is enlightened and open to innovation, often not really expecting it, and sees the process not as a burden, but as an opportunity for invention and excellence. BAM is definitely that kind of client. For me, working so closely with them and having their trust to do our best are the things that make me and my partners and colleagues at Mitchell Giurgola most excited about practicing architecture.”

Retrofit Team

OWNER: Brooklyn Academy of Music

METAMORPHOSIS AWARD WINNER and ARCHITECT: Mitchell Giurgola Architects LLP

CONSTRUCTION TEAM: Hunter-Roberts Construction Group

MEP ENGINEER: ICOR Consulting Engineers

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Silman

CIVIL ENGINEER: Langan

THEATER/AUDIOVISUAL: Auerbach Pollock Friedlander

ACOUSTICS: Akustiks

RESTORATION: Superstructures Engineers + Architects

CODE/EXPEDITOR: Milrose Consultants

LIGHTING DESIGN: George Sexton Associates

VERTICAL TRANSPORTATION: VDA

Materials

FLUID-APPLIED ROOFING: Siplast

DECORATIVE CONCRETE TREADS: Get Real Surfaces

CURTAINWALL: Kawneer

CUSTOM REPLACEMENT WOOD WINDOWS: Seaboard Weatherproofing & Restoration

INTERIOR GLASS PARTITION: Technical Glass Products

CARPET TILE: Custom Color and Pattern and Urban Retreat by Interface

CERAMIC TILE: Modern Dimensions by Daltile

PORCELAIN TILE: Crossville Inc.

ACOUSTIC CEILING TILE: LYRA High CAC and Ultima Health Zone by Armstrong Ceiling & Wall Solutions

ACOUSTICAL PLASTER: Acoustement 40 by Pyrok

ACOUSTICAL BANNER: Acouroll from Texas Scenic Co.

CUSTOM PERFORATED METAL SLAT CEILINGS: Gordon Architectural + Engineered Solutions

SOLID SURFACE: Caesarstone and Corian

ORNAMENTAL GLASS RAIL: CRL shoe with 1 1/16-inch-thick glass assembly from C.R. Laurence Co. Inc.

ORNAMENTAL STAIR: M Cohen and Sons

THEATRICAL LIGHTING CONTROLS: ETC

CURTAIN: Rose Brand

VARIABLE FREQUENCY DRIVES: ABB

FIREPROOFING: CAFCO 400 from ISOLATEK

FIREPROOFING INTUMESCENT: AD FireFilm from Carboline

ELEVATOR CAB: United Cabs

LIGHTED HANDRAIL: Intense Lighting by Leviton

ROOFTOP AIR CONDITIONERS: Trane

SPLIT AIR-CONDITIONING UNITS: Trane/Mitsubishi Electric P Series

BUILDING AUTOMATION: ABM Systems

EXTERIOR WATERPROOF COATING: Prosoco BMC II

EXTERIOR PAINT: Raccoon Fur from Benjamin Moore

About the Author

Christina A. Koch
Christina A. Koch is editorial director and associate publisher of retrofit.

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