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City Center Commits $75 Million to Renovation

March 17, 2010 - by NYC News Desk
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New York City Center today unveiled plans to modernize the organization's home in midtown Manhattan to provide a sparkling 21st-century facility for audiences and performers, while at the same time restoring this historic, neo-Moorish building to its elaborately decorative glory.

Constructed in 1923 as a meeting hall for the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, City Center's building was dedicated by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1943 as Manhattan's first performing arts center. A comprehensive project designed by Polshek Partnership Architects will now upgrade the building from the canopies in front to the back of house with new lighting, improved seating and sightlines, gracious new amenities and more. This increased comfort, convenience and functionality will be achieved within a showplace where the shimmering mosaic walls, richly colored arabesque ceilings and intricately detailed plasterwork are again as fresh as new.

The $75 million Campaign for City Center: Preserving the Past, Securing the Future-already 76% of the way toward its goal-will both realize the renovation of the landmark building and support City Center's current and future programs, such as the acclaimed Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert and the immensely popular Fall for Dance festival.

The much-needed renovation will be carried out in two phases, from late April through September 2010 and from mid-March through October 2011. This schedule ensures that there will be no significant interruption over the next 18 months to the world-class programs and performances presented at City Center.

In recognition of the civic importance of City Center's artistic contributions to the cultural life of New York, its educational outreach throughout the five boroughs and its vital place in the architectural fabric of midtown Manhattan, the City of New York has committed more than $35.6 million to the capital campaign to renovate the city-owned property, with funds coming from the Office of the Mayor through the Department of Cultural Affairs, the City Council and the Office of the Manhattan Borough President.

"With this campaign, we are ensuring that City Center can better serve its artists and audiences in the future, even as we celebrate and restore the glory of our past," stated Arlene Shuler, President and CEO of New York City Center. "We are deeply grateful to our Board and the other supporters who have already stepped forward to make this campaign a success, beginning with the City of New York."

"From its early stages as Manhattan's first performing arts center to its present day as a welcoming home to so many terrific companies, New York City Center has an extraordinary track-record of embracing artists and diverse audiences," said Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate D. Levin. "This renovation will bring the landmark facility into the 21st century, providing amenities that contemporary audiences expect and resources that help performers do their best work."

According to Duncan Hazard, Partner in Charge, Polshek Partnership Architects, "When people step into the refreshed and reanimated City Center, we hope they will feel we've given them a thoroughly top-line, modern performing arts center, that remains true to their affection for this wonderful place. It is a privilege for us to be working with this gorgeously ornamented building, which simply could not be constructed today. We want it to be a pleasure for the audiences and performers to experience every aspect, old and new, of City Center."

Renovation Highlights
Polshek Partnership Architects' design preserves the essential character of New York City Center, while beautifully restoring and dramatically enhancing the building with modern patron amenities.

The design addresses and resolves a number of functional shortcomings inherent in the original building while retaining its distinctive appeal. A new canopy on the exterior with additional exterior lighting and signage, subject to the approval of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, will announce the theater's presence more visibly on the street and define the building more dramatically within its urban context. In the interior, the original box office lobby and mezzanine lobby will be faithfully restored, and several dramatic new spaces will be introduced, including an expanded and redesigned street level lobby and a new patrons' lounge that capitalizes on an existing alley space. The number of restroom facilities of the theater will be increased by fifty percent. Upgrades to the auditorium will include the re-sloping of the floors to improve sightlines within the house, and the reconfiguration, respacing and resizing of theater seating throughout to make it compatible with contemporary standards and to provide more comfort and improved ADA accessibility for all patrons.

The renovation respects and enhances the original theater's much-loved Moorish-accented design motifs. In addition to the careful restoration of many of the spaces, the new design insertions have been based on a careful study of the underlying geometric motifs of Islamic architecture, reinterpreted to be complimentary but not imitative of the existing fabric. The architects' goal is to create a vibrant new venue, with all of the conveniences and amenities that contemporary patrons expect, but one that is still "City Center," beloved by generations of New York City theatergoers.

Back of house improvements include a new "sprung" stage floor suitable for dance, all new theatrical support systems, a completely refurbished dressing room tower and ADA accessible toilets for the performers.

Built in 1923 as a Moorish-style meeting hall for the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, the former temple officially became New York City Center on December 11, 1943, with Mayor LaGuardia himself taking the baton to conduct the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra in the national anthem. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, City Center flourished as a popular, affordable alternative to the Broadway theater, the Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall. City Center was so successful in fostering the performing arts that New York City Opera, New York City Ballet and New York City Symphony were founded under its dome. A very young Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York City Symphony in low-cost, after-work concerts. Luminaries of the theater, including Paul Robeson, Orson Welles and Tallulah Bankhead, played the classics on City Center's stage. Still-rising stars such as Bob Fosse and Walter Matthau appeared in popular revivals of Broadway musicals.

After the opening of Lincoln Center and the departure of New York City Opera and New York City Ballet, the building was under-utilized and was threatened with demolition. It was saved in the 1970s when, under the leadership of then-chairman Howard M. Squadron, the theater was dedicated as New York's premier home for dance and given landmark status, and New York City Center was formed to manage the complex and ensure its survival as a performing arts center. By this point, however, much of the vintage architectural detail had faded or been covered up, and the functional shortcomings of a former Shriners' hall had never been adequately addressed in converting the building into a home for dance and musical theater. The grand re-opening, in October 2011, of the modernized and restored theater will give way to a new era for the building and for New York City Center.

New York City Center has played a defining role in the cultural life of the city for more than 60 years. It was Manhattan's first performing arts center, dedicated by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1943 with a mission to make the best in music, theater and dance accessible to all audiences.

Today, City Center is home to many distinguished companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Paul Taylor Dance Company and Manhattan Theatre Club; a roster of renowned national and international visiting artists; and its own critically acclaimed and popular programs. The Tony-honored Encores! concert series has been hailed as "one of the very best reasons to be alive in New York." In 2007, Encores! Summer Stars was introduced with Gypsy, starring Patti LuPone, which transferred to Broadway and garnered three Tony Awards for its lead actors. Dance has been integral to the theater's mission from the start, and dance programs, including the annual Fall for Dance festival and a partnership with London's Sadler's Wells Theatre, remain central to City Center's identity.

The City Center performing arts complex, with its 2,753-seat mainstage, two smaller theaters, four studios and 12-story office tower, provides a nurturing environment where artists can rehearse, present their work and build audiences. City Center offers a wide array of services on behalf of the non-profit performing arts community and honors the theater's founding mandate of accessibility with a broad range of ticket prices, starting as low as $10.

Educational programming is vital to City Center's mission and the theater's many initiatives for students, teachers and artists help integrate the performing arts with public school curricula. Programs include in-school and on-site student workshops in New York City public schools, special student performances, and professional development training for teachers and teaching artists, who reach more than 5,000 student participants each season. City Center also administers long-term artist residencies in public schools.

Polshek Partnership Architects is an internationally acclaimed architectural firm, whose work includes new building design, planning, renovation and adaptive re-use projects, largely for not-for-profit educational, cultural, scientific, and governmental institutions. Among Polshek Partnership's award-winning projects are: The Standard New York, The Public Theater renovation, Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, William J. Clinton Presidential Center, Carnegie Hall renovation and expansion, Yale University Art Gallery renovation and expansion, Brooklyn Museum renovation and expansion, Holland Performing Arts Center, Weill Cornell Medical College Weill Greenberg Center. Projects in progress include Stanford University Concert Hall, Tisch School of the Arts, Utah Museum of Natural History, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Education Center, and New York City Center. Polshek Partnership is the recipient of the AIA Firm Award, the President's Medal of the AIA/New York Chapter, and the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award.

For more information, visit

Photo Credit: Robert Kern

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