Boardwalk Beauty

Grandeur returns to Atlantic City's historic home to Miss America
August 11, 2010

When it opened on the Boardwalk in 1929, the Atlantic City Convention Hall was hailed as the world's largest clear-span space under one roof. Supporting its barrel-vaulted ceiling, 10 pairs of three-hinged arched box trusses originally designed by engineer/architect Lockwood Greene, Spartanburg, S.C., provided a column-free space 456 ft. long and 310 ft. wide. A mixture of Romanesque, Byzantine and other styles, and resplendent with sophisticated finishes, details and marine colors, this place of beauty in 1940 became the permanent home to beauty — the Miss America Pageant.

In recent years, sandwiched between glittering gaming casinos, the hall — the Boardwalk's only remaining structure from its golden age — was itself a symbol of the city's faded magnificence. Its leaking, pockmarked ceiling darkened by the smoke of thousands of cigars, reflected the general disrepair that overtook the city. Though still clinging to the hem of Miss America's gown, completion of a 500,000-sq.-ft. convention center in 1997 ended its use as an exhibition space.

But the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA), the hall's owner and developer, had plans for its adaptive reuse and enlisted architect/engineer Ewing Cole Cherry Brott, Philadelphia, to design the makeover and Tishman Construction Corp., New York City, to manage construction of the $99 million project.

Restored in grand style

Last fall the beauty returned to the Boardwalk in a manner befitting its elegance with the completed interior rehabilitation of the 73-year-old facility. This transformation from an outdated convention hall into a top-rate entertainment and sports arena earned it a Grand Award in Building Design & Construction's 19th annual Reconstruction Awards competition.

Renamed Boardwalk Hall, the inner shell of the historic 340,000-sq.-ft. structure was restored to its original grandeur. A 14,000-seat capacity bowl was added, with new amenities such as bathrooms, concessions and novelty stands housed beneath. The arena again is hosting concerts by top entertainers such as Britney Spears and Paul McCartney. On the sports side, heavyweight boxers take to the ring when the hall is not being used as home ice for the East Coast Hockey League's Boardwalk Bullies.

 
The $99 million renovation of Boardwalk Hall transformed the former convention center into a modern entertainment and sports arena. The project included the restoration of the hall’s historic shell and the insertion of a new seating bowl.


Five-and-a-half years in the making, with a 34-month construction period, the hall's renaissance was anything but a smooth process. Financing delays in the first six months of the planning phase resulted in 17 different project schedules. Unknown factors such as the discovery of asbestos in the walls of the building led to a significant number of change orders. Demolition of the ice rink revealed widespread corrosion of the underlying structural concrete slab, the result of brine leakage from broken refrigerant tubes (see related story).




"It was a 70-year-old building that had never had anything done to it," says Barbara Lampen, vice president of strategic planning and development for NJSEA. "Every time you turned around there was another surprise."

Funding for the project came primarily from $20 million in federal historic rehabilitation tax credits and $80 million provided by the New Jersey casino industry under the reinvestment tax credit provision of the state Casino Control Act.

As a state-operated, nonprofit organization, NJSEA was prohibited from using the historic tax credits. So it formed a limited liability corporation with Pitney Bowes Credit Corp., which purchased the historic tax credits. The corporation, Historic Boardwalk Hall, LLC, now owns and operates the property while NJSEA manages it.

Melding history and the modern

While funding was being secured, the building team plotted its strategy. "We had to maintain the historic fabric and integrity of the existing building, but at the same time insert a modern seating bowl within," says William McCullough, project architect with Ewing Cole Cherry Brott.

The NJSEA's commitment to the Miss America Pageant complicated the project's construction phase. Every year, from 1999 to 2001, construction came to a complete halt for four weeks in August and September so the hall could be turned over to pageant officials. "It was a like running a marathon while hopping on one foot," says John Sassmann, Ewing Cole Cherry Brott's project manager.

 
Column capitals in the balcony were fully restored. Preservation experts conducted a paint analysis to ensure replicatication of originals.


"The pageant set the whole pace for how the job was done," says Michael Mennella, Tishman's project executive. "We compartmentalized construction into 11-month bites."




Asbestos-laden ceiling restored

The project began with the ceiling restoration and proceeded downward. Historic preservation architect/engineer Watson & Henry Associates, Bridgeton, N.J., concluded the ceiling's compressed sugar cane tile was unsalvageable and posed a fire hazard. Removing the ceiling also meant removing 196,000 sq. ft. of asbestos insulation behind it — enough to cover 41/2 acres — at a cost of $5 million.

Manufactured by Celotex Corp. (now BPB), Tampa, Fla., the compressed sugar cane fiber was perforated, face-nailed to a wood frame and coated with aluminum paint. The tile was replaced with perforated silver metal panels whose edge details simulated the look of the original tile. In tandem with the panel perforations, an acoustic blanket installed behind the metal panels enhances sound by reducing reverberation.

Erecting scaffolding to reach the 137-ft.-high ceiling was cost prohibitive and would have taken too much time to disassemble and reassemble before and after the pageant. Regional Scaffolding & Hoisting Inc., Bronx, N.Y., remedied the situation by erecting two innovative rolling scaffolding systems, which were suspended from the ceiling trusses.

Glass-fiber-reinforced-gypsum panels replicate the box truss's original architectural enclosures. A series of lighting fixtures along each of the truss enclosures were restored. A reflector-box lighting system behind 2-ft. by 2-ft. laminated glass openings gives the appearance of windows letting in daylight.

Eye-catching colors

Much research and work was devoted to restoring the original colors and textures of the hall. A historic paint analysis was performed, followed by a detailed paint selection process. The aqua colors on the truss enclosures and the silver metal panels on the ceiling tile replicate the original color scheme. "The original intent was to give the impression of being under water," says Watson.

"The colors are my favorite part of the project," says the NJSEA's Lampen. "The most gratifying thing was when local residents would come in and look up and go, 'Wow!'"

In addition to the ceiling, the proscenium stage, decorative stage fire curtain, and a mural above the stage were restored by Evergreene Paint Studios Inc., New York City. The balcony area's column capitals that line the top of the seating bowl also were preserved and restored, as were the state seals that adorn the walls.

Although the hall was a historic landmark, restoration was not the original emphasis of the project, says Penelope Watson, principal architect with historic consultant Watson & Henry. "As we got further into the analysis, Ewing Cole and NJSEA realized preservation would make the building stand out from other sports and entertainment facilities," she says.

Modern seating for new events

Parts of the building such as the existing seating balcony were not worth preserving. Removal of the outdated seating, which offered little more than poor sight lines, small seats and tight confines, opened opportunities to move eventgoers closer to the action. The area beneath the bowl houses bathrooms, concessions, novelty shops, locker rooms, management offices, and back-of-the-house facilities.

"In the heat of battle you sometimes view the historic aspects of a project like this as a burden," says Sassmann. "But Watson & Henry took the historic aspects of the building and prioritized them in terms of what really was important and made them work."

The decision by Ewing Cole Cherry Brott and arena consultant Rosser International, Atlanta, to leave the concourse open, revealing the sides of the historic shell, created an interplay between the two that was meshed by use of complementary materials and colors.

The restoration and renovation was successful in preserving the building's integrity and identity, says Sassmann, who cites comments from locals. "They said the building hadn't changed so that they no longer recognized it. We kept the important things in place."

Construction Costs

Temporary protection $1,746,000
Hung scaffolding system 4,975,000
Ceiling removal/asbestos abatement 4,528,000
Ceiling reconstruction 21,536,000
Arena bowl 14,255,000
Event center fit-out 22,450,000
Historic preservation specialties 856,000
Furniture, fixtures, equipment 10,255,000
Tenant fit-out 837,000
Site environmental 3,070,000
Project management 8,132,000
A/E fee 6,000,000
TOTAL $98,640,000