Going Public: Ennead Architects’ Ovation-Worthy Renovation of the Public Theatre

Architectural historian Spiro Kostof described architecture as “the material theater of human activity,” which makes renovating an actual performance space a daunting prospect (and possibly a meta-performance). Enter Ennead Architects, starring in the multi-year production of renovating New York’s Public Theatre. We asked writer Marc Kristal to survey the project’s latest stage.

The New York City landmark’s new stoop and canopy at dusk. (All photos © Jeff Goldberg/Esto)

“This space has always been about community,” says Patrick Willingham, executive director of The Public Theatre at Astor Place, the magisterial 19th-century Renaissance Revival building that, since the late 1960s, has served as a multi-stage venue for founding director Joseph Papp’s vision of a new and groundbreaking American theatre. Architecturally, at least, that has never been more the case: the capstone of nearly two decades of renovation/restoration work, to the tune of $42 million, by Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership), the recently completed revivification of the structure’s entry and lobby have dramatically expanded the Public’s public component–making the place that brought you (among countless theatrical high-water marks) Hair, A Chorus Line, and The Normal Heart a crowd-pleaser in every sense.

Though Papp’s intervention, in 1966, saved it from demolition, the building, at 425 Lafayette Street in Manhattan’s East Village, was hardly insignificant. Completed in three phases (by three architects) between 1853 and 1881, it was commissioned by John Jacob Astor and served as the city’s first free public library. In 1921, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society purchased the property and converted it into a shelter and all-purpose gathering place for newly arrived European Jews; the letters HIAS, in faded paint, are still visible on the northern elevation. Under Papp’s supervision, architect Giorgio Cavaglieri carved out five theatres of varying sizes and configurations, home to some of the great productions of the last half-century. But the communal spaces remained less than stellar: during the HIAS years, the original grand entry podium was lost, replaced by an interior stair that consumed 30 percent of the lobby. And subsequent to Papp’s original renovation, the structure received almost no upgrading until Ennead began substantive work in the mid-nineties.

Without, project architect Stephen Chu, along with design counsel James Polshek and management partner Duncan Hazard, restored the original auspicious sense of arrival with a three-sided grand stair, measuring seventeen by seventy feet and constructed from solid blocks of black granite, protected by a new glass canopy. In addition to extracting the steps from the lobby and enabling theatre patrons to enter at the original level of the three arched front doors, the new stoop serves as a welcome outdoor destination on a street previously lacking one, a magnetized urban gathering place akin to the monumental stairs in front of the Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue (though less imposing and more boho).

Once inside, the most obvious transformation is the enlarged lobby footprint–legal occupancy is now 690 persons, up from the old suck-in-your-gut 290 figure. But no less impactful is the replacement of the preexisting enclosed fire stairs with new public ones, which creates a more porous experience on the lobby’s north and south sides; the relocation of the (expanded) box office to the space’s rear, permitting access to the Public’s popular music venue, Joe’s Pub, from inside (previously patrons entered through a separate exterior door, which cut it off from the larger collective experience); and–most usefully for downtowners seeking a quiet, comfortable, free place to meet up or hang out–a 900-square-foot mezzanine (with wifi) that overlooks the lobby: an interior magnet that exerts the same appealing pull as the outdoor stairs.

Ennead’s lobby redesign also permits an elegant, effective interplay between the restored historic interior architectural elements and such new insertions as an oval-shaped snack bar in the space’s center and, above it, the Shakespeare Machine, a chandelier-cum-art piece, by Ben Rubin, featuring LED displays of notable fragments from the Bard. And henceforth, no one will miss the start of the second act: the mens room’s facilities have been increased by 200 percent, and the ladies have gotten twice that.

New York-based architecture and design writer Marc Kristal’s books include Immaterial World, The Great American House, and Magni Modernism.

Recommended articles