Sumit Singhal loves modern architecture. He comes from a family of builders who have built more than 20 projects in the last ten years near Delhi in India. He has recently started writing about the architectural projects that catch his imagination.
The Modern Theatre in Boston, MA by CBT Architect
April 12th, 2011 by Sumit Singhal
Located in a dense historic district in downtown Boston, Suffolk University embraced the once magnificent, but now abandoned, Modern Theatre as a way to meet the needs of its expanding theater program. Working with the City of Boston, the University agreed to restore the original masonry façade and replace the deteriorated theater with a new one, thus also completing the City’s final phase of a comprehensive multi-theater restoration endeavor. The reconstruction of the Modern Theatre revives a city landmark and the project is reinvigorating the neighborhood by bringing new uses to the site, while honoring and maintaining the building’s period look.
Designed in 1876 by architect Levi Newcomb in the High Victorian Gothic style, the building originally housed two cast iron storefronts and a carpet storage warehouse. In 1913, architect Clarence Blackall was hired to convert the building into a theater. It was Boston’s first theater specifically designed to show motion pictures, an entertainment medium still in its infancy. Blackall added a marble addition to the main façade and inserted a narrow 800-seat auditorium into the basement and first three stories of the building.
In 1913, no one knew what demands film technology would soon make on theater architecture. Blackall’s Modern was in many ways, typical of a modest vaudeville house, with an intimate stage and the stacks of dressing rooms off the wings. It was decorated with painted scenic treatments that hinted to the exuberant interiors of the grand movie palaces that were to come a decade later. Only an alcove in the upstage wall with a small screen mounted in it, showcased the theater’s pivotal role as an early home for silent movies.
In the late 1920s, the Modern Theatre was Boston’s first theater to show “talkie” films. The theater flourished for a time, but it struggled to compete with the larger, grander movie palaces for which it had blazed a trail. The building continued to be used for a variety of entertainment purposes, including adult films and live events, and gradually it deteriorated. In the late 1970s, a rehabilitation project began with the intent of returning the building back to legitimate theater use. However, the theater continued to struggle and was sold in the early 1980s. From that point on, the building was vacant and was in a state of severe neglect for more than 20 years.
When Suffolk University acquired the site, only the magnificent façade could be saved. The interior of the theater was in disrepair – the original plasterwork crumbled and its public and backstage spaces were no more than a decayed shell. A few tantalizing fragments of the historic auditorium treatments were salvaged and preserved, but otherwise the old theater was gone. Replacing the original Modern with a new one, presented a difficult design challenge. The original auditorium was very deep but extremely narrow, a function of the original tight site and the limited width of the image produced by the 100-year old projection system. The old vaudeville stage layout with its quaint picture sheet alcove was also a relic of another age. The original stage, auditorium, and theater support space did not meet today’s building codes, nor did it meet Suffolk University’s performing arts needs. So a new approach was needed.
Suffolk wanted the Modern to serve as a theater for the University and also to accommodate community organizations, non-profits, and other theater groups as part of the school’s community outreach. CBT and Martin Vinik Planning for the Arts worked with Suffolk’s theater department to look at various theater and stage alternatives. A simple black box was considered, but in the end the team decided to design a new theater that, while meeting contemporary standards of comfort and technology, still evokes the form and feeling of the building’s historic past. CBT designed the meticulous restoration of the façade, deconstructing the Modern’s marble and sandstone exterior block by block, numbering, ,and restoring each piece individually before re-assembly. The new stage and auditorium were fit into a space only 36’ wide at the proscenium line, fronted by a two-story lobby space which doubles as a gallery. Additionally, 10 stories of residential space were built above the theater to serve as Suffolk’s newest dormitory. The residence hall was built on a structure designed to allow for every possible inch of ceiling height in the theater. It features suite-style housing for 197 students and its contemporary design relates to its historic context in a dynamic way.
The new theater plan is designed in a formal proscenium configuration with 185 seats on the main level and in a small mezzanine, but it also provides users the ability to vary the layout of the area in front of the stage in a number of ways. From the traditional end stage arrangement, seating may be removed and the pit lift elevated to extend the stage apron, or by adding platforms over three additional rows, the stage can be converted to a classical rectangular thrust. Additionally, parapets forming seating boxes on the sides and along the central cross aisle are demountable. It takes approximately four workers a total of only two hours to transform the auditorium from a formal proscenium theater with orchestra pit to either thrust or flat-floor configurations. The multiple theater configurations allow the theater to accommodate a variety of user groups. The space is programmed with the optimum balance of flexibility to fit current and future performance needs.
The form and scale of the interiors reflect the design of the original theater in many ways. While the stagehouse is entirely modern, with motorized rigging, the auditorium is a modern nod to the past. Its design suggests the neoclassical early “movie palace” styling of the original theater, but it also takes its form from the traditional English playhouse architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries. The plan retains the original narrowness of the side walls, creating an intimate performance space ideally suited to spoken word drama but easily adaptable for musical theater, film, and many other events.
The theater is entered through a sound and light lock area that features a glimpse of the best original artifact salvaged from 1913 the Modern, a painted scrim that once served as a cover to the acoustical absorption chamber above the maine stage. The scenic technique and design elements of that surviving scrim fragment are seen again in echoes on the new walls once patrons mount the stairs and enter the auditorium at the rear.
When inside the theater, the beautiful craftsmanship throughout the space is apparent. The level of detail is exceptional and captures the spirit of the original theater. One of the defining characteristics of the original theater was its hand-painted walls. The University commissioned Tony Award winning scenic designer John Lee Beatty to design and paint wall treatments for the new Modern that pay homage to the tradition of scenic paintings that once graced the original theater. His simple, theatrical style is formal yet playful. Through gentle indirect light, the walls surround the audience with scenic art that evokes a bit of the magnificent old theater style. The walls are a remarkable and unique work by one of the true geniuses of contemporary American scenic design.
The technique Beatty used is typical of modern scenic design – he first hand-painted small-scale design treatments and then full-size cartoons, which were scanned and printed on canvas by EverGreene Architectural Arts in New York. He then spent three weeks over-painting the original canvases and then the canvases were installed like wallpaper on the site. Beatty completed the wall treatments by blending and touching up the murals, leaving walls with hand painted detail and the longevity canvas wallpaper. The new wall treatments will last as long as the painting in the original Modern Theatre.
To maximize the performance space within a small footprint, all available space at the grade level was devoted to the stage and public spaces of the theater. The necessary theater support spaces are all located at the basement level, running underneath the entire stage and auditorium. The support spaces include two dressing rooms, a small wardrobe room and an open green room area, as well as ample storage space. In addition to the main theater storage area, small storage areas and cabinets are located along the corridors.
The project is targeted for LEED Silver Certification – sustainable practices were incorporated into the design, construction, and operational procedures of the Modern. Restoration and reuse are key elements of sustainable building and the project incorporates these principles by preserving the beautifully detailed exterior of a landmark historic theater. The project maintains the architectural aesthetics of the neighborhood, while also reducing the amount of demolition waste and reducing the amount of new building materials required for construction.
Low-flow plumbing fixtures were selected for the building. They use 2/3 less water than standard fixtures and make a major contribution to water-use reduction. The new HVAC design has DDC (direct digital controls) which provides centralized monitoring, adjustment, and alarms for each piece of building and theater equipment. This will help Suffolk save energy in multiple ways, including controlling thermostat set-point ranges and by controlling equipment during unoccupied time periods. Additionally, utilizing daylighting and efficient lighting fixtures, the lighting power density is 25% above current ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) standards.
The project team removed a great deal of contaminated material from the existing building during construction. The removal of asbestos, lead, and other toxic substances has created a clean and healthy indoor environment. Additionally, the University has implemented a green housekeeping program that reduces waste, improves indoor air quality, and protects the environment from harmful cleaning chemicals. This holistic approach benefits the health of building residents and staff.
The reconstruction of the Modern Theatre has resulted in a unique venue within the City. It elevates Suffolk’s performing arts program and is a point of pride for students and the surrounding community. The theater has been adapted for contemporary performance needs while paying tribute to its former glory – making it once again a distinctive member of Boston’s rich performing arts tradition.
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