10/01/2014

Archtober Building of the Day #1: The Public Theater at Astor Place

Archtober Building of the Day #1
The Public Theater at Astor Place
425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY
Ennead Architects

Welcome to year four of Archtober and the blog. 2014 has been the year of “Civic Spirit: Civic Vision” and there are a few Building of the Day tours that will amply demonstrate the vibrancy of that theme as it manifests itself in public spaces, public buildings, and, today, in the PUBLIC THEATER. Those new black steps out front with thin illuminated slivers of text is the Public’s “seventh stage,” Ennead Architects’ way of bringing the outside in, of having the theater of the city flow from the theaters of playwrights, and back to the theater of the city. Theater shows us who we are, and the Public Theater has, for the past 60-some years presented a balanced mix of Shakespeare, classics, musicals, contemporary works, and experimental projects in an old public library, repurposed with six completely different theatrical venues. The lobby is filled with words, and immediately my head is filled with prompted quotes from the Bard: “What do you read, my lord,” and Hamlet replies: “Words, words, words.” So we kick off with some good words about the public, the theater, and the splendid blend of history and aspiration that brings them all together.


© Eve Dilworth Rosen

Ennead Associate Partner Stephen Chu, AIA,  led the tour. Armed with three easels and stacks of great easy-to-read drawings and historic photographs, the architect developed the history of the three lives of this sturdy antebellum structure. Originally built in 1853 as the Astor Library, the building had successive additions as the library grew until the 1895 consolidation with the Lenox and Tilden Libraries that formed the New York Public Library (yup, those lions on Fifth Ave.). The original architect was Alexander Saeltzer, and the additions were designed by Thomas Stent. The three buildings comprise the historic library. Abandoned by the NYPL in 1911, the structures were repurposed to meet the needs of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1920. A social service organization with a branch on Ellis Island, HIAS facilitated the emigration of almost a half-million Jews from Russia, the Balkans, and the Middle East. The Astor Library became a residence, a half-way house, a kosher cafeteria, and an advocacy organization for the displaced Jews of the early 20th century. But plenty of historic library fabric remained intact in the HIAS maze of classrooms, offices, small synagogue, and bazaar.


© Eve Dilworth Rosen

By 1965, the building had deteriorated considerably, was for sale, and faced certain demolition. One of the first successful “saves” of the newly-created Landmarks Preservation Commission, the City of New York purchased the building, gave it landmark status and leased it to Joe Papp, who had already established his vision of promoting Shakespeare to the masses. Archiecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it “the miracle on Lafayette Street.” Early productions in the building, renovated into six theaters by Giorgio Cavaglieri, FAIA, in the 1960s, included “Hair” and the first production of “A Chorus Line” – in addition to the Shakespearian staples: a singular sensation.


© Eve Dilworth Rosen

Ennead began its involvement with the renovation of the lobby and public outdoor space. Taking cues from the historic building, a new stoop was added by gobbling up a lane of Lafayette Street and expanding outside the original entrance. A glass canopy was also added. More words: Paula Sher of Pentagram had a hand in some of the words, and artist Ben Rubin created The Shakespeare Machine as a site-specific light fixture that features 37 LED display screens on which fragments of Shakespeare’s plays appear and dance. No combination of words is ever repeated.

   
© Eve Dilworth Rosen

This was a great project to kick off the month of architecture. It has everything – an August beginning as an institution for learning, a historic transformation reflecting the changing nature of the neighborhood and the world as an immigrant society, and its chapter as a hub of theaters exploring all those themes and more. Welcome to Archtober! Stay tuned for 30 more…tomorrow we tour 250 Bowery by Morris Adjmi Architects at high noon. See you there.

Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, AIA, is the Managing Director of the Center for Architecture and the festival director for Archtober:  Architecture and Design Month NYC.  She was previously a partner at Butler Rogers Baskett, and from 1989-2005 at Swanke Hayden Connell.  After graduating from Princeton (AB 1975, M.Arch 1979) she worked for Philip Johnson,  held faculty appointments at the University of Virginia, NJIT, and her alma mater. ckracauer@aiany.org