NEW YORK — For one of the oldest major performing arts venues in New York — one that's hosted many of the world's premier artists for nearly 70 years — City Center seems to have had something of a self-esteem problem.
It seated over 2,700 people in its main theater, but many of those seats were uncomfortable, the sightlines less than desirable. The lobby felt small and crowded. The beautiful vaulted ceiling in the upstairs lobby was dulled with layers of wear and dust.
The distinctive neo-Moorish facade, a city landmark, was barely visible from the street because of dark green awnings in front of it. And you couldn't see the building, located on West 55th Street, from either nearby corner.
In short, though it's only a block from the more famous Carnegie Hall, likely no one ever joked, "How do you get to City Center?" (Practice, practice, practice.)
But all this is changing.
New York City Center, proudly inaugurated by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1943, is being reintroduced this week following a renovation to the tune of $56 million. Old layers of paint have been scraped away with razor blades, original color schemes restored. Seats have been ripped out, replaced with plusher, wider models. Better sloping has improved sightlines.
Outside, those nondescript green awnings have been removed, replaced by a marquee that shows off the sandstone facade. And — hello, self-esteem! — illuminated signs are now visible from Sixth and Seventh avenues in Midtown Manhattan.
"This place has been around a long time, and was truly getting a little dreary," its president and CEO, Arlene Shuler, said in an interview last week as workers around her applied the finishing touches. "People would come here for performances, but not know they were coming to City Center. We felt it was very important to be more competitive in this environment."
The building known now as City Center actually began as a home to the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, otherwise known as the Shriners. "They'd been using Carnegie Hall as their meeting house, but Carnegie Hall didn't like all the cigar smoke. So they built their own place a block away," said Duncan Hazard, the chief architect on the job.
In 1943, though, the Shriners could no longer keep it and the building was headed for demolition, until LaGuardia and the city council took it over and turned it into an arts center. (It's still owned by the city, which was the major donor to the capital campaign that paid for the renovation.) At the opening, LaGuardia himself took the baton to conduct the New York Philharmonic in the national anthem. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is scheduled to conduct, as well, at a star-studded reopening Tuesday.
City Center was a major home for New York culture for decades — early on, as an alternative to Broadway theater, and the original home of New York City Ballet and New York City Opera. When those companies later moved to the newly built Lincoln Center, it became underused. It was refocused as a major dance center, and today is home to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — which recently signed a new 10-year deal — and to American Ballet Theatre's fall season. It brings in countless visiting troupes, from the Kirov to flamenco performers to tango groups.
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It also hosts the extremely popular Fall for Dance Festival, a 10-day smorgasbord of global dance that sold out in five hours this year (it begins later this week) and the equally popular Encores! musical theater series. In a smaller theater, it houses the Manhattan Theater Club.
One recent loss was the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which recently announced a move to Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, newly vacated by New York City Opera.
Shuler hopes they will return, and that the renovation will draw others, of course. Leading a reporter around the new digs, she and Hazard began on the stage — now refitted with a sprung floor, kinder to dancers' feet. Out in the audience, a worker in a cherry-picker was cleaning the domed ceiling with what looked like a giant mop.
"Over a few unfortunate restorations, the color had become an unappealing gray-white," Hazard said of the theater's Moorish-style ceiling and walls. "We did some archaeology of the paint finishes, and found out the original 1923 color scheme." Now, there are vivid blues and greens.
There's also a spiffy new lighting booth. But the first challenge was to improve those sightlines. Undesirable seats were ripped out, bringing the seat count down to 2,250 from over 2,700. Rows were also resloped, adding to better visibility, and staggered. Seats were widened, too, with better cushioning for the derriere.
The renovation, which was completed over two summers to minimize disruption, also focused on the inner and outer lobbies. Patrons now enter from the sides of the auditorium, creating more lobby space and improving audience flow.
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The outer lobby now has a bar, and paned glass doors so one can see in from the street. And for all the faithful reconstruction, a contemporary touch has found its way in: Large video monitors in the inner lobby, which will host three video installations per year.
There are added elevators, and even the restrooms have been redone with an eye to Moorish style. (And cast and crew now have their own restroom on stage level, something they were lacking.)
Shuler and Hazard seemed especially proud of the Grand Tier lobby, a level up from the orchestra, with its colorfully painted vaulted ceiling and the desert-themed murals on the walls.
Restoring the ceiling, workers with razor blades scraped off layers of paint and shellac for four to five months. "It was a real labor of love," said Shuler.
On the other hand, the upstairs lobby floor had been buffed with so much love last week that it was dangerously slippery underfoot. That will be adjusted, Shuler said.
Back in the theater, sitting in the best Grand Tier seats, Shuler said she believed they were the best seats in the city, bar none — they hang over row H, bringing one close to the stage, yet above it.
Hopefully, she said, more people will know about them now.
"We think people are going to be aware now that they're coming to City Center," Shuler said.
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