Countdown at City Center, as Reopening Approaches (NYTimes)

Maybe you missed certain flicks of the fan in Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s popular “Revelations” because of City Center’s poor sight lines.

Maybe you were jammed in the center’s outer lobby trying to enter an Encores! performance of a classic musical like “Bells Are Ringing.”

Or maybe you’ve strolled along West 55th Street in Midtown without ever knowing what was going on behind that auditorium’s neo-Moorish facade.

With the renovation and restoration of its landmark building, to be unveiled on Oct. 25, City Center hopes to have addressed these imperfections, along with 88 years of wear and tear.

“The renovation has been transformative for the entire organization,” said Arlene Shuler, its president and chief executive. “City Center for a variety of reasons didn’t have sufficient visibility in the cultural community broadly. Part of the problem was the physical building. It’s a midblock building. It had no presence on the street.”

City Center has spent $57 million of a $75 million capital campaign in the hope that people will now notice it. A new glass marquee (with heat lamps) shines lights on the exterior as well as on the sidewalk. Protruding signs are now visible from both Avenue of the Americas and Seventh Avenue. And new glass doors allow passers-by to look into the building at six large high-definition plasma screens.

The New Museum is acting as curator for three installations for those monitors in the first year, beginning with a series of video works by Rashaad Newsome, a New York artist.

City Center was not originally meant to be a theater. It was built in 1923 as a meeting hall for the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, or Shriners, and did not become City Center until 20 years later. At the opening, on Dec. 11, 1943, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia conducted the New York Philharmonic in the national anthem. In an evocation of that moment, the center’s reopening gala on Oct. 25 features Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as a guest conductor.

The renovation project, designed by Ennead Architects — formerly Polshek Partnership — aims to make the theater feel more contemporary and welcoming. The lobby and patrons’ lounge have been expanded. Restroom capacity has increased by 50 percent.

But the project also deliberately returns the theater to some of its former decorative glory. The painted ceiling on the mezzanine lobby has been restored, as have that level’s desert-scene murals. The original light fixtures have been refurbished and cleaned.

“We wanted to renovate this theater, we wanted to bring it into the 21st century,” said Duncan Hazard, the Ennead partner in charge of the project, “but we very much wanted it to be the City Center everyone has loved for many, many years.”

When the city took over the hall, in 1943, its multicolored interior was painted white for easier maintenance. So the renovating architects did some paint archaeology to investigate the original colors and bring them back. “One of the joys of a job like this is the discovery process,” Mr. Hazard said.

In some cases, the architects had to tone down the color scheme; the gilt walls that flank the stage, for example, were too reflective for modern lighting requirements.

The stage was originally built to focus attention on the Shriners in the middle. “It was a little like watching a television screen,” Mr. Hazard said. “It was that far away.”

To improve sight lines, the architects increased the slope of the seating platforms and removed six rows of less desirable seats, reducing the total to 2,255, from 2,750. The new seats are about two inches wider, and the auditorium’s formerly threadbare red upholstery has been replaced by blue-green velour.

In conjunction with its reopening season, City Center has also planned some new programming, including fellowships that will provide three choreographers at critical stages of their careers with a one-year home at City Center. The first recipients are Emery LeCrone, a young ballet choreographer; Andrea Miller, the artistic director of the New York troupe Gallim Dance; and Shen Wei, the artistic director of the 10-year-old company Shen Wei Dance Arts.

The fellowship recipients will each get a $10,000 stipend, rehearsal space and a performance opportunity at City Center. They will also have access to the organization’s administrative expertise in fund-raising, finance, technology and marketing.

Last month Alvin Ailey, long a fixture there, announced its first multiyear agreement with City Center, a 10-year, nonexclusive contract that names the company as the hall’s principal dance company.

But for the most part, business at City Center will remain as usual. The theater’s operating budget — currently about $18 million — will not increase with the renovation, Ms. Shuler said. The complex, which includes two smaller theaters, four studios and a 12-story office tower in addition to the main stage, will continue to be home to Manhattan Theater Club, as well as Alvin Ailey. The theater’s mosaic walls and arabesque ceilings will remain.

“We didn’t want people to walk in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, look what happened to City Center,’ ” Ms. Shuler said. “We want them to come in and say, ‘Wow, look at City Center now.”



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