GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College, Boston
Upon stepping through the doors of the recently restored Cutler Majestic Theatre at 219 Tremont Street in the heart of Boston’s Back Bay, you just might pause and wonder if you’ve entered a time machine that has whisked you back to the glorious grandeur of the Beaux Arts era.
Interior surfaces are swirled with rich, red marble and crowned with gold-leafed masks, leaves, and cherubs. Thick garlands of fruits and flowers adorn walls and columns. Full-figured sculptures lean over their guests, peering down from walls. The ceiling’s golden latticing is garnished with grape clusters, and if you look carefully, you can see the sky peeking through the open spaces.
Indeed, it conjures up another time – one of glorious, beautiful, opulent excess. But never fear. You’re still in the 21st century, not to mention the very model of a modern, major theatre that’s owned and operated by Emerson College, a school renowned for its focus on the performing arts.
Underneath the painstaking gilded reconstruction of the 30,000-square-foot Majestic’s original 1903 glory, lies the framework of a highly technical performing arts hall, which offers up the latest technologies in sound, lighting, video, and acoustics – not to mention improvements in all other areas of the grand old building.
The $7 million restoration and modernization endeavor was led by Boston-based Elkus/Manfredi Architects, who oversaw all facets of redesigning the Majestic as a 21st century theatre inside a 19th century landmark.
“It really was a labor of love,” says Howard F. Elkus, principal-in-charge at Elkus/Manfredi. “You become vested in thinking about another era and see how the technology of today can fit into it. Our architectural quest was to get it right and to do so in all things.”
Beaux Arts Beauty
Originally designed as a Beaux Arts opera house by noted architect John Galen Howard, the Majestic was a pioneer in theatrical design underneath its gilded aesthetic splendor. It was the first Boston theatre designed without pillars. Instead, balconies are cantilevered to provide unobstructed sight lines. Unlike traditional concert halls, the Majestic auditorium is shaped like an inverted bowl or megaphone, curving both out and up from the stage.
And Howard’s use of electric light – more than 5,000 bulbs trace the arches and accent the design elements – attracted enthusiasts and imitators from around the world.
The Majestic opened in 1903 to accolades about its revolutionary design, its extraordinary acoustics, and, most visibly, its architectural beauty both in the lobby and in the house itself.
Newspaper coverage of the theatre’s grand opening noted the two-story lobby’s “sensual murals” painted by New York artist William deLeftwich Dodge; ornate Italian mosaic flooring known as scagliola (a faux marble created from intricately finished plaster); and rich velvet draperies. This luxuriousness gave visitors only a taste of what lie in store for them when they entered the house.
It has been suggested that one pictures a highly detailed Faberge egg turned inside out to get the perfect description of the Majestic’s house interior back in 1903 and again today.
As one of the few remaining examples of the Beaux Arts style in the United States, the theatre is revered for its grandeur. The words “plush,” “ornate,” and “sumptuous” serve as apt descriptions, but seem meager in comparison to the theatre’s true grandeur.
Over the years, the facility has served as a venue for productions that ranged from the dramas of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekov to Vaudeville shows, operettas, and musical comedies.
Despite its illustrious past, the Majestic went into decline in the 1950s, reflecting not only changes in the entertainment industry but also the economic decline in the Boston’s languishing Theatre District.
In 1956, Sack Cinemas purchased the theatre and renamed it the Saxon, turning it into a movie house and closing the balcony. In an attempt to “modernize” the facility, the owners renovated the lobby by adding a suspended ceiling and affixing plywood paneling to the walls.
The Majestic remained a movie theatre until 1983, when Emerson College purchased it. The college spent four years making extensive repairs to the facility and reopened it for use in 1987, starting the institution’s campus infiltration into the city’s redeveloping Back Bay area.
As the theatre’s centennial anniversary approached, the college decided to take the plunge and restore the facility to its original architectural glory while modernizing it to current standards.
Before the theatre could be restored to the way it looked when it opened in 1903, a great deal of legwork had to be done to discover exactly what the Majestic looked like when it first opened its doors.
Robert A. Silverman, vice president of administration and finance at Emerson College, says the college put a lot of thought into recreating the theatre’s original aura. An initial restoration analysis was done on the Majestic’s decorative schemes in the early 1990s, followed by the recent work done by Evergreene Painting Studios Inc. out of New York City.
Initial research phases by Evergreene delved into the theatre’s history to determine what decorative finishes initially were used. Evergreene owner Jeff Greene examined paint samples under a microscope in the quest to determine the Majestic’s original color palette. The restoration team also studied the gold leaf to decide how many layers of the gilded finish should be applied to reach true reconstructive accuracy. It was tricky, to say the least. “There were paint layers on top of gold layers,” notes Robert M. Koup, project manager at Elkus/Manfredi.
Koup noted that Greene’s explorations did not cover all of the finishes in the theatre. The architects and representatives from the college also relied on information from 1903 newspaper articles that vividly described the new theatre’s interior appointments on opening night. Such articles described the gold accents, the seating, the electric lighting, and the carpeting, among other furnishings. “In some cases it was impossible to know what was there,” Silverman says of the entire analysis process, noting that the carpeting was one such example.
“None of the original carpeting survived,” Silverman says. “We had written descriptions of it from newspaper accounts. We then went back to pattern books from 1903 and selected a pattern that was in use at the time and that looked like the written descriptions of the newspaper accounts of the time. We only can say that the carpeting that’s in there today recalls what was in there [when the theatre opened], but is almost certainly not a replica.”
Crews ripped out the theatre’s existing, non-original seating and replaced it with new seats that replicate the original design. The design team also recreated the theatre’s plush velvet curtains and valances to the arches above the box seats and rewrapped all auditorium railings in upholstered velvet.
The original finishes in the lobby, as well as the William deLeftwich Dodge murals in the lunettes, were restored to their former glory.
“Throughout the renovation process, our facilities management department was involved in all of the discussions about the use of materials and the design of specific features so they would be relatively easy to maintain,” Silverman notes. “There are a number of materials that weren’t available 100 years ago that are far easier to maintain.”
The lighting is such an example. It was restored with an acceptable, modern twist – thanks to advances in building products technology. The new house lighting, according to Silverman, was designed to look exactly like the historic lighting of 100 years ago. The lenses on this “string of pearl” lighting are made from a modern acrylic but are “nearly an identical match to the glass lenses used in 1903,” he says.
“They survived, so we know exactly what they look like,” he adds. “Acrylic fixtures are easier to maintain. But, you can stand five feet away and not tell the difference from the glass. Some people have to walk up and tap the lens to tell that it is not glass.”
Outside, the historic stained glass windows have been restored and have been lighted from behind. The ornate, 1903 terra cotta decorations were restored, while the original façade lighting and marquee were replicated, putting the building firmly back into its nostalgic roots.
The ambitious restoration also included many upgrades and improvements, including meeting current building codes and providing ADA accessibility. Because the theatre is a Boston Historic Landmark and is listed on both the Massachusetts and National Registers of Historic Buildings, the construction team had to carefully plan each update so that the building’s landmark status was not altered in any way
“Both the exterior façade and the auditorium were protected,” Koup says. “We had a challenge early on to address accessibility issues. We had to provide access to all seating levels in the auditorium. It would have required installation of an elevator in the auditorium, and that would have been tremendously disruptive.”
The process required close work with a code consultant to develop scenarios when code compliance was in conflict with the project’s budget target or the theatre’s historic designation. The team worked to build a consensus among City of Boston building officials, the Boston Fire Department, the State Building Code Appeals Board, the Boston Landmarks Commission, and the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board. The effort paid off, resulting in acceptance of a project design that retained the Majestic’s original character in the proposed budget framework.
“We negotiated to design handicapped seating at the cross aisle of the orchestra section,” Koup explains. “We also provided a new elevator that connected the lobby level to the lower level and provided lower-level handicapped toilet facilities, as well as a new lobby lounge.”
Safety considerations came into play during the restoration of the formerly closed balcony area. Re-opening the balcony would increase audience capacity from 980 seats to 1,200 seats; however, the space in its deteriorating, original format was what Koup calls a “terrifying environment.”
“It had a very steep slope and was very unsafe in terms of today’s code requirements with its lighting, railings, etc.,” he says.
Reworking the balcony also demanded a new means of access to it for all patrons. When the theatre – which had an extremely shallow lobby area – opened in 1903, it housed the low-budget seats and was never physically connected to the main lobby, orchestra, or mezzanine areas. Patrons bought tickets from a separate box office window in the alley next to the theatre and accessed their balcony seats from a separate door in the alley. They never mixed with the higher-class patrons in the orchestra or mezzanine areas.
“We needed to make a logical internal connection to the seating,” Koup explains. “We took one of the existing exit stairs, turned it around, and made more comfortable access for patrons to walk up to the seating rather than the original scheme, which was to enter through the back door and stay out of the way.”
The team also needed to find a lobby area that accommodated 220 extra patrons to provide them with a reasonable pre-show and intermission environment. Lobby areas were expanded on the building’s lower level, while the main floor lobby retained its original configuration other than the addition of a new ticket window that blends effortlessly with its surrounding 1903 design. The lobby lounge area increased in the mezzanine, while architects added new lobby lounge and toilet areas off the re-opened balcony. Six food and beverage service areas were also added.
As Koup notes, this painstaking restoration did have its challenges – and often required creative thinking in order to bring the facility back to its original 1903 appearance.
“It would be very excessive and very challenging to replicate some of the original finishes in the theatre, whether it be decorative metalwork or lobby plaster, and add the new finishes and spaces that we needed to add,” says Koup. “When we needed to make substantial changes, we needed to find another vocabulary that was appropriate to the 1903 time that [spoke] to the architectural changes. That’s why we used stained wood panels in the ticket area. It was appropriate to the theatre but also to our budget constraints.”
The theatre is open about 40 weeks each year. About eight of those weeks are reserved for Emerson College use. The remaining 32 weeks are used by regional, non-profit theatre groups. All users require 21st century technology to do their work well. The challenge arose from integrating modern theatrical systems into the interior of a protected landmark building.
The architects took a significant portion of the stage lighting and pushed it to the back wall of the second balcony, establishing a new lighting position. Speakers, located throughout the auditorium, are painted in the same palette as the auditorium itself.
“In one sense, there is so much happening visually that it could absorb this kind of change in detail. On the other hand, because the architecture you see has been so carefully and artistically created in the first place, at such a high level of design, it’s incumbent that anything you do here lives up to that,” Elkus says. “We had to have the sensitivity to do it and the conviction to get it right.”
The team also left room for expansion of the theatrical system infrastructure. “The theatre world evolves all of the time,” Koup notes. “We didn’t want to foreclose any opportunities for the theatre to continue to evolve as its market becomes more certain. In terms of the theatrical systems, we didn’t build in things we weren’t absolutely sure we needed right now. We left room to add things. We created provisions for the future.”
Most of the Majestic’s backstage support is located in Emerson College’s newest facility, The Tufte Performance and Production Center, which was built on a tight site within 10 inches of the grand old theatre and also was designed by Elkus/Manfredi. It is the first new building built in the college’s 120-year history.
“We were challenged on one hand to do this extraordinary restoration and renovation, but at the same time we were also designing a brand-new, no-holds-barred architectural statement of the 21st century,” Elkus says.
The 78,000-square-foot, 11-story Tufte Center attaches to the Majestic Theatre. While it does have a new, 210-seat thrust stage theatre; a 130-seat, end-stage theatre; two television studios; and support facilities to be used in college programs, this new facility – which easily can stand alone – plays a significant role behind the Majestic’s modernization.
While the Majestic has been wired for video cameras with an uplink to allow for live broadcasts, the control center for this feature is located in the Tufte Center. When the Majestic reconstruction and Tufte Center construction began, trailers sat on the Tufte site. These trailers were used as Majestic dressing rooms and had been there for years. Now the Majestic’s group dressing rooms, star dressing rooms, and the Majestic’s green room are located in the Tufte Center. The center also has a service elevator that connects the Majestic’s rigging.
“The Tufte Center provides the facilities that the Majestic lacks,” Koup points out.
Combined, the two facilities provide the college and the City of Boston with a state-of-the art center for live performance, broadcast, and video production.
“This is the most public face of the institution,” Koup says. “Imagine a college that focuses on communications and performing arts that moves to the city’s theatre district. It acquires a theatre of this prominence and restores it as a statement of its values. Imagine the value this theatre has to Emerson to attract prospective students. It puts the image out there in the college market. It is a huge asset to the school. It is Emerson’s most public face in the city.”
Robin Suttell (firstname.lastname@example.org), based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.
Modernization Team at Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College • Architect (entry submitter): Elkus/Manfredi Architects • Owner: Emerson College • General Contractor: Lees Kennedy Co. Inc. • Theatre Consultant: Auerbach Pollock Friedlander • Interior Restoration: Evergreene Painting Studios • Structural Engineer: LeMessurier Consultants • MEP Engineer: Cosentini Associates • Acoustical Consultant: Kirkegaard & Associates • Fire and Safety Consultant: Norton S. Remmer, PE • Lighting Consultant: Ripman Lighting Consultants • Stained Glass Restoration: Lyn Hovey Studio • Products Used • Building Automation Systems: Huntington Controls • Doors: Lambton Doors • Electrical/Electronics Distribution: Electronic Theatre Controls.; Lithonia Lighting • Elevators/Escalators: Concord Elevator • Façade: Darlington Brick • Floorcoverings: Armstrong; Dal-Tile; Durkan; Prince Street • Furniture: Chairmasters; Irwin Seating • Hardware: LCN; Schlage; Von Duprin • HVAC: Trane • Life Safety/Security: Detection Systems; Edwards Systems Technology • Lighting: Brass Light Gallery; Crenshaw Lighting; Lightolier; Rejuvenation • Paint: Duron Paints & Wallcoverings; Ralph Lauren Paint • Plumbing: American Standard • Signage: Boston Sign Co. • Windows/Glass: Lyn Hovey Studio • Other: ASI – American Specialties Inc.; DeBall; Evan Corp.; Global Steel Products; JB Martin; Johnsonite; Wenger
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