In its previous incarnations over the last nine decades, Henry Miller’s Theatre on West 43rd Street has been a Broadway mainstay, a discotheque, and a porn palace. Reaching back into the past was therefore something of a delicate matter for Cook + Fox Architects, which has resurrected the theater’s glory days in the base of the firm’s Bank of America tower that soars 55 stories above.
DBox for Cook+Fox Architects
Fortunately, designers found a guiding spirit in the original theater’s namesake, the actor and producer Henry W. Miller. “This is a unique typology: a Broadway theater with a shallow balcony arch that keeps the audience close to the stage,” said partner Rick Cook, noting that the 1918 venue emphasized a direct relationship between audience and actors, “We had the benefit of Henry Miller’s writing about what made a great theater, and we wanted to preserve that typology.”
Working for the civic-minded Durst Organization, which built the tower, known as One Bryant Park, designers also aspired to connect the performing arts to the broader urban experience. The most obvious link to both the past and the public was the neo-Georgian facade, a city landmark that remained in place throughout the process of construction. The design team also placed artifacts from the old theater on the walls, while salvaged bits of the original plaster proscenium adorn the stage.
But a larger opportunity lay in the way the former space is knit into the tower complex. “Because it was part of a much larger project,” Cook said, “we wanted to make sure it would benefit from being part of One Bryant Park. We could have the midblock entrance and a really unique experience.” To that end, the midblock passage features a portrait of the rakish Miller in “kinetic sequins” that enliven the entry for bank employees and lawyers who daily pass through the space, according to Keith Helmetag, a principal of C&G Partners, which worked on signage and navigation plans from the corporate lobby and midblock loggia to the theater.
Sustainable features, the hallmark of One Bryant Park, also extend to the 1,055-seat theater’s public and private spaces. “This was an opportunity for a Broadway theater to benefit from technologies developed for a larger project—stormwater capture, and energy that’s about three times as efficient as the grid,” Cook said. “People will feel a much higher quality of air, with 95 percent particulate filtration.” In a nod to Douglas Durst’s fidelity to green demonstrations, the project, which aims for LEED Gold status, will also include carbon-dioxide sensors and what Helmetag described as a “green clock” in the midblock space charting the energy savings in the tower and other sustainability-tuned buildings around the world.
And then there are the bathrooms. Behind the angled mezzanine seats facing the stage, and via a broad winding staircase, red-walled restrooms dominate the middle level. These are said to be the most capacious restrooms in the industry (boasting 22 fixtures in the women’s room), with a bar placed one level below to avoid cramping space. Designers also moved the dressing room under the seats, and placed the orchestra pit directly under the stage, where it sits more or less alongside ice storage. Among other benefits, these moves help the circulation plan provide for ample entrances from stage left and right.
These strategies get their first test on October 15, when John Stamos and Gina Gershon stride onto the stage, confront sloping rows of bright-red seats, and tear through Bye Bye Birdie as the kickoff for the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 20-year lease of the space.
A version of this article appeared in AN 10.07.2009.