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When it first opened in 1867, the Opera House Theater in downtown Newport, Rhode Island was an engineering success story. The Reconstruction-era masterpiece was built in just five months, mostly by hand. It opened the town up to performers, speakers and thinkers from all over the world, and it quickly became a local showcase for new ideas and technology.
Today, a team of architects, engineers, designers and historians are executing engineering feats of it's own to restore the historic building, one of the United States’ oldest surviving theaters. The team has also redesigned the same space to create a state-of-the-art theater that will again attract audiences and performers from around the globe.
We have two missions: to preserve the building because of its historic nature and to make it work as a 21st century performance space for the next generation.
Mohamad Farzan, NewPort Architecture
The Opera House has undergone multiple renovations throughout its 150-year history. In 1929, the space was gutted and refitted to be both a theater and a single-screen cinema palace. Structural updates included introducing steel beaming throughout and adding a 40-foot tall proscenium arch. Again, the theater remained a center for entertainment and information exchange, as patrons filled the seats to watch international news reels and experience movie magic. Over the subsequent decades, the space moved further away from its original function and was converted first into a duplex and then a triplex movie theater.
In 2000, a group of locals recognized that the lack of a performing arts space was both a cultural and economic loss for the city. They formed the Newport Performing Arts Center and restored the building’s façade. When the movie business moved out ten years later, the group initiated a massive undertaking to reinstate the theater space once more.
“Ultimately, this is a resilient, purpose-built building,” Liz Drayton; head of Patron Relations for the Opera House. “About every 50 years or so, the building (and the business within) undergo a total remake to respond to changes in the world around it and the desires of the community-from an opera house, to a cinema palace, to a tri-plex movie theater, and now back to its live performance origins.”
The theater will return to its original intent, yes, but not without some key updates. For instance, the design team carefully considered the staging and technical requirements of today’s performers. In order to attract top talent, the stage, dressing rooms and audio and lighting technology will all be tailored for a high-end experience that performers can customize to best suit their production needs.
While preserving the theater's existing geometry, we have doubled the depth of the stage area, including a lift that can be used as stage, seating or orchestra pit.
Christopher Buckley, Production and Performance Facility Consulting, Inc.
For the current renovation, the building team reinforced loadbearing walls with steel columns and a network of support beams. They could then break through the wall separating the hotel rooms from the theater to create an expansive lobby space that includes 10 arched windows from the original 1867 building. The reinforcement also allowed for the addition of a rooftop event space with views overlooking the nearby harbor.
Despite the many updates, the team sees the changes as in keeping with the theater’s original spirit. “This place has always been Newport’s connection to the rest of the world,” Drayton remarks. “It has always been a testing ground for new technologies, new ideas and new performances. By restoring this theater, we are simply returning to the Opera House’s origins-experiencing life in real time.”
Work continues on site with the theater expected to open in 2019. If all goes as planned, the resulting structure should be a cultural, economic and technological boon for the city, just like the original engineering feat of 1867.
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