Weeks ago, back when New Yorkers were starting to shelter at home but it was still kosher to get a little fresh air and take a walk, I invited a few people to suggest modest strolls, one on one, around places meaningful to them. They would guide the tour.
The goal? Simple. Distraction, joy, consolation, a chance to describe how buildings speak — and speak, historically, personally, deeply and differently to different people.
Today the city is officially on pause and everybody is banding together by staying inside, so the walks, as they were pretty much intended from the start, are to be consumed vicariously, from home, via text and images, not on foot. They’re a reminder that, even besieged, the city amazes, endures, awaits.
In the coming weeks, virtual walks may become a thing. Meanwhile, the architect David Rockwell is first onstage, having elected to look at Broadway’s hibernating theaters. Winner of a Tony, an Emmy and a James Beard Award, he founded the New York-based Rockwell Group, which has designed over 70 productions on and Off Broadway as well as scores of hotels, restaurants, cultural and other institutions around the world.
On a cool, sunny Sunday, we met outside the New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, keeping the prescribed distance from everyone else and each other. Our conversation, as future tours will be, is edited and streamlined a bit.
Michael Kimmelman The theater is closed. What do you have in mind?
David Rockwell The fact that we can’t get in got me thinking. From the outside, one of the obvious things that differentiates one Broadway theater from another is the entrance. Entrances are important with all architecture, of course, but on Broadway it’s where a lot of things are set in motion, drama-wise.
A good example is the New Amsterdam, built in 1903. In 1913 it took off as the home of the Ziegfeld Follies, with a risqué nightclub on the roof. Florenz Ziegfeld [Jr.] brought over Joseph Urban, the architect from Vienna who did productions for the Metropolitan Opera, to design the Follies, an incredible high-low feat. The building is in Art Nouveau style. It was designed by Herts & Tallant, their first big success.
Henry Herts is one of the great figures in Broadway history, ultimately partnering with Herbert [J.] Krapp to design the Booth Theater, the Longacre and the Shubert, among others. When 42nd Street declined, so did the New Amsterdam. Then during the 1990s, Disney invested in restoring it as a place to put on big productions like “The Lion King.” Hugh Hardy did the renovation, a glorious job.
We can’t see inside now but it is this extraordinarily baroque version of Art Nouveau, with all this beautiful glazed terra-cotta and three balconies that meld the walls into the ceiling into the stage, like a taut skin, so everything funnels an audience’s attention onto the performers.
You have to picture the whole sequence. The New Amsterdam has this teeny entrance onto the street. A person has no idea there’s a massive theater behind here. Krapp devised a similar illusion at the Imperial Theater on 45th Street. It looks like nothing outside, but the Imperial hosted all these major musicals like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Cabaret” and “Les Misérables.”
Here, the theater is hidden behind what looks like a slender, richly decorated, four-story, turn of the century office building. Inside, ornate boxes bubble out and wrap around walls that support a dome that links to the proscenium, with the details most frenetic around the boxes, then getting very simple around the proscenium.
So the architecture invites people in the audience to check out the building, one another, then concentrates everyone’s attention on the stage. It orchestrates a drama of its own, starting on the street.
It’s a great example of that. You see a similar sequence in old movie palaces from that era. Growing up in New Jersey, I remember going to a movie palace called the Mayfair that had moving clouds projected onto the ceiling. These were called atmospheric theaters. The idea was an exotic evening in the country.
So when you went to the movies you were supposed to feel you were escaping the city. Was that experience as a boy in New Jersey when you first got interested in design and the theater?
Corny as it sounds, my first interest was through community theater. After my father died, we moved from Chicago to New Jersey, four older brothers, my mom and I. We’re talking about 1959-1960, so I was three or four. We settled in a little town called Deal, which has huge homes and not a lot of public space other than the beach. Then in about ’62, ’63 my mom helped start the Deal Players, a community theater. It turned out everyone in town wanted to participate, which was an eye-opener for me. Especially after my father died, there was something about all these people coming together that felt like a celebration. We also came into the city, and on my first trip in 1965, we went to see “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Imperial, walked around Times Square and ate at Schrafft’s. I can still remember the sound of that restaurant, the clinking glasses, the sense that you had joined a party. I think I got a sense that restaurants were a form of theater.
Then “Fiddler on the Roof” was such a powerful experience. The combination of movement, storytelling and design — it changed my life, especially this feeling of being welcomed, into a restaurant, a theater, becoming part of a larger drama. That seemed deeply human. It’s what you can feel coming to Broadway. These theaters still thrive, I think, because of this human need to come together and celebrate.
We’ve now walked to 44th Street and headed east toward the Belasco, past the Hudson Theater.
The Hudson is from 1903. The original architects were J.B. McElfatrick & Son.
From outside, the scale of the architecture looks almost domestic.
Some theaters reacted against the glitz and glamour by going for something quieter outside, more like an apartment house. When it opened, the Hudson billed itself as having a huge lobby. That was its calling card.
I don’t think the goal was to build a theater around a big lobby. I suspect it’s similar to what happened when we designed the Elinor Bunin [Munroe] Film Center at Lincoln Center. To build the theater, we had to go back far enough from the front door to get past the mechanical systems of the Metropolitan Opera.
The Belasco, just up the block, looks almost like a cartoon version of a Colonial Revival building. It opened in 1907, designed by George Keister for David Belasco, who put a 10-bedroom duplex apartment for himself on top. It had elevator access right from the stage to his apartment.
You ever been up there?
Never. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was the first show I remember seeing here. And years later I designed a show for Michael Moore at the Belasco. I loved working here. I remember walking in with him and he had a kind of freshman’s awe. If I have a favorite theater, it’s probably the Neil Simon where I did “Hairspray.” I don’t know how much that’s influenced by what a joyful thing “Hairspray” was. I also love the Al Hirschfeld Theater where I did “Kinky Boots.” You build relationships with theaters you work in and with the people you worked with.
That’s important, I think, because architecture tends to be thought of as auteur-driven. But there’s always a team that produces buildings. In theater, it’s a fraternity. Nothing moves on a stage unless it involves four or five other people — choreography, music, lighting, the tech director. It’s all about real-time collaboration.
OK, now we’ve walked back west to the heart of Broadway, Shubert Alley, a midblock pedestrian path, usually mobbed, which highlights the Shubert and Booth Theaters by giving them coveted corner sites. I gather this used to be where aspiring actors congregated in front of the offices of J.J. and Lee Shubert, hoping to be cast in plays.
We’re now standing on 44th Street in front of the Shubert Theater, which shares its facade with the Booth to the north along Shubert Alley. The two theaters were conceived together. They use a wonderful kind of Venetian rustication framing deeply carved details made with layers of colored cement called sgraffito. Fantastic. And up there in the mansard roof is Shubert’s legendary apartment.
Have you ever designed a show for the Shubert?
No, but we are often asked to design a show not knowing what theater it’s ultimately going to be in and we have to take the Shubert into account. I wanted to point out the Majestic and the St. James, on this same block, two of the biggest, most legendary musical houses on Broadway, because I love the cast-iron decoration on the facades. A theater, architecturally, is basically a taut surface containing a closed box. So there are not always things on the exterior to decorate. In these cases, the enclosures for the fire escapes and mechanicals became opportunities for these amazing decorative flourishes.
On the St. James the enclosure looks almost like an organ loft, jutting out of the brick facade.
Inside, the theater is even more elaborate — the grandest spot on Broadway for musicals, where “Oklahoma!,” “The King and I,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “The Producers” all happened. Warren and Wetmore were the architects.
They worked on the design of Grand Central Terminal, too. What have you done at the St. James?
We did the revival of “Side Show” with Bill Condon, who also directed “Dreamgirls” and wrote the screenplay for “Chicago.” One of the most special experiences I have had. When you get to work here, you’re aware that you belong to this amazing history. I should say it’s very different to be the architect of a theater as opposed to designing a show. We were the architects who renovated the Hayes next door to the St. James. We spent four years crafting a whole new narrative for that theater. We were hired when Second Stage took it over a few years ago. The theater was landmarked inside and out by then, even though it had been renovated many times. It was built in 1912. Krapp expanded it and added a balcony in 1920. It is where “The Merv Griffin Show” was broadcast [for a time]. The theater was a largely dark brown box when we arrived, but we learned that it had originally been decorated with reproductions of tapestries by Boucher.
Francois Boucher, the French Rococo artist?
Yeah. So there were of course many practical things we had to do to make it a better theater, like providing wheelchair access and improving the dressing rooms. But we also proposed to the Landmarks [Preservation] Commission that we paint every surface of the audience chamber with a pixelated pattern based on a Boucher tapestry, the color shifting from light blue in the back to dark blue at the proscenium. They approved. It was my little homage to what Herts & Tallant did at the New Amsterdam.
One last stop?
I wanted to end at Studio 54. I think it says a lot about Broadway theaters and architecture and the city. The building was designed in 1927 by Eugene De Rosa. It belonged to a surge of Broadway theaters constructed, as it happened, during the decade after the 1918 flu epidemic. It opened as an opera house. I find it interesting that theaters are so resilient. They can have many lives. When Studio 54 was a club in the ’80s, I designed a sushi bar on the balcony. Then it became a venue for the Roundabout Theater and I got to do “She Loves Me.” It was just a joyful chance to create a set that danced and moved to the music.
For architects, set design can be a lesson in the fact that nothing is permanent. Permanence can be a little restricting, it turns out. Theater isn’t permanent. It exists when there is an audience.
It’s like the city.
That’s when it comes alive.
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