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Architectural Osmosis

Two distinct landmarks bore through a wall to create CenterStage.



We've heard Shakespeare soliloquies and Mahalia Jackson spirituals, Prokofiev and Puccini. CenterStage has been up and running since September, but in my mind its true christening is “The Nutcracker.” That phenomenon promises a workout for both sides of the footlights. Beginning next week waves of patrons will flock to Grace and Sixth streets, many of them youngsters seeing a live performance (if not visiting downtown) for the first time. For many adults, the Tchaikovsky classic is a reconnection with innocence.

And although such performances will be on the boards in hundreds of other places, I'd wager none are held in spaces so decorative it's impossible to tell where the architecture ends and the sets begin. The theater that opened in 1928 as a Loew's atmospheric movie palace, then converted for performing arts in the 1980s, and later closed for years amid controversy and finger-pointing, is back on its game: Kaleidoscopic colors, colliding classical details and textured surfaces that have delighted patrons for generations have been restored, repainted and refurbished.

But there's more. The architecturally exuberant theater has been married to an unlikely partner, the adjacent, coolly modernist former Thalhimers department store. The result is as pleasing as it was unlikely, all seamlessly merged by the Boston-based firm of Wilson Butler Architects.

The John Eberson-designed former Loew's exhibits 1920s consumerist excess at its best, or worst. It marked a decadent, last hurrah for classicism gone wild. In the 1930s and following decades, modernism was embraced as an architectural cleanser. The 1955 Thalhimers building exemplifies that trend. Fashionably sleek, it was designed by the New York firm of Kahn & Jacobs, which was clearly influenced by Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, a 1939 temple to modernism designed by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone. Both buildings have flat street walls embedded with a grid of elegant marble paneling, contrasting sandstone elements and continuous, ribbon windows set back on the upper floor.

In its restoration and adaptation of the theater and former department store, Wilson Butler respected the innate qualities of each structure while simultaneously punching them up. In the case of Loew's, now the Carpenter Theatre, audience and performer spaces are more comfortable. Once-cramped lobbies? No more. There are new restrooms, attractive box offices and wider aisles and seats.

Everything looks fresh, even perky. Especially the carpet. During the 1980s restoration, something close to the original, more sober design was installed. The new carpet pops with electric shades of orange, purple, yellow and blue in a quasi-tropical pattern. But it's unrelenting. A cooler and tamer floor treatment would have offered welcome relief in the former Thalhimers building.

The auditorium's appearance is little changed, but there are differences. Light towers on the far sides of the mezzanine are trellislike follies. Another change is the loss of the projected, gentle clouds that once wafted across the ceiling. In their place are clumsy-looking acoustical panels that hang over the orchestra pit. Since the old movie palace had a parody of a cloud-filled sky, this caricature of a caricature is too many steps removed from the spirit of the original decor.

If the Carpenter Theatre's changes are subtle, the Thalhimers conversion is a revelation. The street level contains the 150-seat, multipurpose Rhythm Hall and, at the corner of Grace and Seventh, the Showcase Gallery. Plate glass windows make both visible to and from the street. From the first floor, patrons move up a carpeted staircase or by elevator to another handsome new space, the Gottwald Playhouse. In this new theater's lobby, there's a brilliant moment architecturally where two miradors — projections with windows — have been added that overhang Grace and Seventh streets offering unexpected downtown vistas.

On a recent Saturday evening I entered the playhouse for a performance of “Mahalia” by the African American Repertory Theatre. There were only 14 patrons in the hall that holds 200. But whether the room is packed or almost empty, the light-colored walls are a distraction. This is essentially a black box theater and the surrounding walls should disappear when the house lights go down. The sooner this fades to black, the better.

If the Grace Street side of the complex is a dynamic mix of 1920s madness and 1950s modernity, the Broad Street and stage house side that fronts an empty lot is, well, peculiar. This is the back of a building never meant to be seen. A symphony hall was planned here, but with the current economy that's not going to happen for another generation, if ever. So Wilson Butler did the best it could to decorate the looming, three-part stage house by used bricks in multiple hues to create some liveliness. The upper third of this wall is covered in two-tone gray diamond shapes, picking up on the decorative patterning on the highly ornamental, Churrigueresque front that rises above the marquee. This great wall of Richmond is going to take some thought.

The equal challenge is how to animate the vacant lot where the larger Thalhimers building once stood. Currently planted in grass, the space is too raw for most arts programming. And there are challenges with urban noises and relentless lights from the surrounding buildings. At the very least the block should dignified with a simple iron fence. That would at least define a space. That would entice pedestrians to come in. With only minimal landscaping and some benches and picnic tables it could become a much-needed greenspace for people working, living and visiting downtown. Why wait?

The path to the creation of CenterStage was often torturous, but there's no denying that this project is architecturally successful. And while holiday theatergoers will be thrilled with the hundreds of bright, white lights as they pass under the spectacular, newly installed marquee, those lights are also a reminder that each old building that finds new life is a gift and one that doesn't necessarily come easy.


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