New York City Center reopens with gala
GalleriesNew York City Center Renovations
The oldest major performing arts center in Manhattan also becomes the newest Tuesday night, when New York City Center reveals its $56.6 million neo-Moorish restoration with a ribbon cutting and a gala conducted, at least for a downbeat or two, by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Built in 1923 in ornate Middle Eastern style as a meeting hall for the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (that is, the Shriners), the building was turned over to the city to pay back taxes after the 1929 stock market crash. In 1943, the city decided to use the massive, unoccupied place on West 55th Street for the arts. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia did the ceremonial baton waving at that dedication, calling this the "people's theater" because of its low ticket prices.
Despite the rich history -- first as the birthplace of the New York City Opera and New York City Ballet, recently as the city's major dance venue and the creator of the celebrated Encores! series -- City Center has been anything but a jewel box. The lobby was dark and cramped, the seats were tiny and sightlines awful, with a balcony overhang drabbing down everything behind Row H. As head architect Duncan Hazard, a partner at Ennead Architects, said, pointing to the balcony, "Your knees were under your chin up there."
With the historic restoration and modernization, for which the city contributed $35.6 million, Hazard said the seats are wider by an average of 2 inches. Leg room has expanded, depending on the configuration, by as much as 16 inches.
The overhang proved too costly to move back, but all the seats are staggered and the floors re-raked so audiences, wherever they sit, can see all the dancers' feet. The lobby is almost spacious. To establish the theater's presence in the 21st century, a wall of changing video art will be curated by the New Museum in the East Village. And, finally, a landmark-sensitive marquee will tell people where they are going and what they can see.
Then there is the decor, meticulously restored or replicated to the last arabesque dome, gilded star and kitsch-exotic mural of a camel procession. "There are no color photos of the original house," said Hazard, especially proud of the magnificent stenciled ceiling above the mezzanine lobby. "We've been scraping away almost 80 years of paint with razor blades."
The changes eliminated 500 of the original 2,700 seats. But Arlene Shuler, City Center's president and chief executive, said, "Those were the worst seats in the house," and seldom sold. "Our gross to revenue potential is about the same."
Programming has already expanded, along with the number of bathrooms and the addition of a second elevator. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has a new 10-year contract. American Ballet Theatre has a commission. A partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center will produce new musicals, beginning next month with "Cotton Club Parade." "Encores! has a longer season. Three choreographers have yearlong fellowships.
And what about New York City Opera, which left Lincoln Center earlier this year for economic reasons? Could the company return to its first home? "It is certainly possible, if not for every performance," said Shuler, confirming that, despite the state-of-the-art amplification system, the orchestra pit still has its original capacity for 70 musicians.
"This is a cherished institution," Hazard said. "We want to bring it into the 21st century without obliterating what it was. It's still the City Center you love, only so much cooler and more beautiful."