When Long Island architect Gregory Andrea first saw the cavernous space off Times Square that would test his imagination for 18 months, he turned to his client, entrepreneur Donald Finley, and said, "I love a challenge."
After more than two decades as an award-winning designer/builder of high-end residences and commercial structures from the Hamptons to Manhattan and beyond, Andrea was eager to try something new. Finley was developing 25,000 square feet on the West 44th Street side of the former New York Times building as the Jekyll & Hyde Club. It's a larger successor to the spooky theme restaurant and tourist attraction he had operated on Sixth Avenue at West 57th Street.
"We spent months in my office in Locust Valley kicking around ideas for dozens of amusing special effects that spin off the dark side of 19th century fiction," Andrea said.
According to Finley's tongue-in-cheek scenario, the Jekyll & Hyde Club's theme picks up where Robert Louis Stevenson's tale about Dr. Henry Jekyll leaves off.
"Dr. Jekyll founded an explorers' and scientists' club whose members traveled the world collecting trophies from their amazing adventures, objects now displayed here in the Jekyll & Hyde Club," Finley said. "Many of the oddities have a life of their own, so guests are warned."
The star attractions in the just-opened, multimillion-dollar restaurant at 216 W. 44th St. are the host of oddball computer-animated characters -- human and otherwise -- that come to life at intervals, spouting bizarre medleys of songs and corny monologues.
A toothy shark belts out "Mack The Knife," a garrulous gargoyle berates guests with wisecracks about "coming from Lon-guyland or Noo Joisey." Diners watch as Dr. Frankenstein creates his monster in an eerie blue-lighted re-enactment. The animatronics were fabricated by LifeFormations in Bowling Green, Ohio.
"I've always been fascinated by Disney and Halloween," said Finley, a Long Islander who previously had hired the architect to design and build the Bayville Adventure Park in 2006.
The furnishings befit the club part of the theme: plush leather seating, ornate chandeliers, tables set with linen napkins and tablecloths, and decorated with reproduction 19th century William Morris wallpaper.
The club owes its existence to Long Island craftsmanship.
Andrea, 53, a Long Island native, lives in Lattingtown with his wife, Michele, and their four children in an estate greenhouse he remodeled.
"I started in business 25 years ago wearing two hats: architect and builder, and I'm still using the same team of professionals -- electrician, plumber, framer, engineer, decorator," he said, "and we're all from Long Island."
Andrea explained that the club was built on two floors in the building that housed The Times from 1913 until 2007.
"The first floor had been the loading dock, where heavy rolls of paper were delivered, and the second floor was the printing press area. It was all empty, just concrete floors and rusty old steel beams that we replaced with new ones that we installed before we tore out the old ones.
"The plan called for a dining area on a mezzanine, so we used jackhammers to cut out the center of the upper floor. There were no utilities and we had to rewire and put in new heating/air conditioning and plumbing for the bathrooms and the new state-of-the-art kitchen the client wanted."
A finishing touch was a huge, animatronic hat-tipping skull.