"If you are ever discouraged, or disappointed with your life, I advise you to go to the backstage door of the Biltmore Theatre and enter quietly ... and listen. You will hear sixty years of laughter and bravos and catcalls, and you will know why playwrights say old theaters are the best."
— Ruth Goetz, who wrote "The Heiress," which premiered at the Biltmore in 1947
One of six theaters built by the Chanin brothers in the 1920s, the Biltmore was designed by noted theater architect Herbert J. Krapp. Located at 261 W. 47th St. in the heart of the Broadway Theater Historic District, the Biltmore opened on December 7, 1925, and, over the next six decades, was home to a highly controversial play produced by legendary sex symbol Mae West, the original Broadway production of the musical "Hair," and Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" (with a young Robert Redford and — no, not Jane Fonda — Elizabeth Ashley), among hundreds, if not thousands, of shows.
Shuttered in 1986 following a ravaging fire, the structure was subjected to years of rain damage, vandalism, and general deterioration. Fortunately, the auditorium, the two main staircases, and a historic mezzanine had been granted landmark status just before it closed, saving the building from the wrecker's ball.
The Biltmore's unusually complex and extremely demanding restoration, with its extensive structural alterations and the integration of new mechanical and electrical systems, has earned it a Grand Award in this year's Building Design & Construction Reconstruction & Renovation Awards.
One of the chief goals of the project was to create an intimate character for the large auditorium to support Manhattan Theatre Club's mission to present new work in a venue that intensifies the theater experience.
"The MTC had concluded that the long, deep shoebox of a theater didn't work for them," says Duncan Hazard, a management partner with Polshek Partnership Architects. In the old Biltmore, theater patrons entered the front doors from the street and were immediately thrust into the seating area or a staircase on their way to the balcony.
To counter that spatially, and to foster a sense of intimacy between audience and actors, Polshek moved the rear walls of the auditorium on both orchestra and balcony levels forward toward the stage, just enough to avoid disrupting the landmark ceiling dome. In that way, the volume of the auditorium overall and the depth of the oversized balcony were greatly reduced.
The newly configured theater has just 650 seats (from the original's 988), making it one of the most intimate theaters on Broadway. The extra space allows seats to be generously proportioned, with ample legroom, for today's audience. Two-thirds of the seats are in the orchestra. When needed, the first two rows can be removed (leaving just 600 seats) to reveal the orchestra pit.
In the found spaces created by moving the rear wall forward, Polshek was able to give the theater a host of new facilities, including lobby spaces on both lower and upper levels, expanded and handicapped-accessible restrooms on all levels, and lounges on the lower level, at the top of the balcony, and on the mezzanine level overlooking the street (for patrons).
The rear walls of the orchestra and balcony of the Biltmore were moved forward toward the stage, reducing the depth of the theater and seating capacity to make way for new lobby and lounge spaces and expanded handicapped-accessible restrooms.
Polshek also created a spacious new lounge in an entirely new space located 19 feet below the old theater floor. This new area houses a bookshop and offices for costumes, carpentry, props, subscriber services, and house management staff.
Local excavator John Civetta & Sons of the Bronx created the space by excavating 3,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock. Random soil tests at select locations by the project's geotechnical consultant Langan Engineering revealed rock roughly eight feet below the old slab floor. Upon excavation, however, Civetta discovered that rock in many of the untested locations was just two feet below the slab floor.
More of a problem than its location was the type of rock that was uncovered. "The rock wasn't that hard," says firm principal Ted Civetta. "Normally, you want hard rock that can support the structure itself. Then you just spend the money to take the rock out." But with softer rock, as in the Biltmore's case, there's the cost of installing the necessary underpinning as well as the cost of getting out the rock, he adds.
Using a tracked rock drill, a long-reach excavator fitted with a hydraulic breaker, and another such excavator fitted with a bucket, the crew broke up the rock, then brought out the spoil up a ramp, through the front door of the theater, and into a waiting dump truck, one bucket at a time. At one point, Civetta's team filled 27 dump trucks in a single day.
With the excavation complete, the new lower level was installed on a poured concrete slab. Buried in that slab are more than 4,000 feet of conduit, providing the necessary backbone for modern HVAC and electrical systems.
When the new orchestra level above was installed, and the balcony above that, Polshek increased the rake of both floors and lowered the stage floor 20 inches to improve sight lines and enhance the audience's intimacy with the action.
A post-tensioned concrete slab floor provided the thinnest orchestra floor/lower level ceiling, while the balcony floor is comprised of a steel-framed deck covered with corrugated steel and poured concrete.
"The balcony framing was a challenge," says Ed Messina, the partner in charge with New York structural engineer Severud. "You dig open a wall and find out it's hollow instead of solid."
"Steel that was supposed to be there wasn't there, or the steel was rotted out," adds Steve Allessio, owner of general contractor Sweet Construction of Long Island. Just about every steel connection had to be redesigned in the field by the engineer, he adds.
Lighting constituted yet another challenge for the Biltmore's renovators. Theater lighting has changed over the years, and with it the technical structure needed to support it. Renovations typically involve adding lighting on the balcony railing, on catwalks, or overhead. To accommodate overhead fixtures, designers either hang a truss from the ceiling or chop holes in the ceiling so catwalks can be installed.
"Most Broadway houses have a big bar with a ton of lights on it, but we wanted to get rid of that," says Polshek's Hazard.
Polshek was able to devise a way to install lighting in four large cutouts in the Biltmore's domed ceiling, preserving the aesthetics of the ceiling while integrating the necessary positions. The team also built support points into the ceiling to support chain hoists and lighting trusses, should the need arise in future theatrical stage productions.
Once the roof was rebuilt with structural steel, contractors were able to hoist replacement HVAC systems to the new roof. Enclosing the alleys on both sides of the theater on both levels provided spaces to accommodate new mechanical/electrical systems. For ductwork, Polshek employed a modern-day version of a plenum ventilation system that delivers air-conditioning from under the seats.
On the exterior, new doors and windows, signage, and marquee complete the restoration of the building's facade. The clearly contemporary glass marquee is an abstraction of some of the original theater's decorative motifs.
Shuttered since 1986, a contemporary glass marquee welcomes back theatergoers into the Biltmore’s historic and intimate setting.
All brick and terra-cotta finishes on the exterior were cleaned, repointed, rebuilt, or repaired, as needed. Roofing, flashing, and water towers were replaced, as were all roof drainage leaders, scuppers, and drains. All existing doors and windows were also replaced, except historic windows in the front façade, which were restored.