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Signature Style

The Signature Theater at 440 W 42nd Street

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Grand plans for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center included a who's who of the architectural world: Daniel Libeskind on the site plan, Santiago Calatrava on the the transit hub, Richard Rogers and Fumihiko Maki on towers three and four, Michael Arad and Peter Walker for the memorial. America's most famous architect, Frank Gehry, was selected to design the new $700 million performing arts center, to house the Joyce Theater and the Signature Theater Company.

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The Signature, which revolutionized the New York theater scene by dedicating entire seasons to the works of one playwright at a time and has since its creation in 1991 picked up a Pulitzer, fifteen Obies and five Drama Desk awards for the work of its resident artists and its productions, was to get a spectacular new home: three theaters, including one with 500 seats, as well as two rehearsal studios and a book shop.

But as with many projects at the World Trade Center site whose wings were quite literally clipped, the grand plans changed.

"We went through a two-to-three-year process trying to work with the various 45 stakeholders down at the World Trade Center," said James Houghton, the Signature's founder of the Signature. "As you can imagine, that got complicated."

According to Houghton, the city was concerned about the rising cost of the performing arts center, which, he insists, were due not to Gehry's design but rather the site's characteristics: because of the footprint limitations, the three theaters were to be stacked on top of each other, which meant extensive acoustic isolation issues, in a building that included seven underground levels, a whole parking garage, a mall, and, of course, the Joyce. Eventually, the city suggested splitting the two theater companies and offered Signature a CUNY-owned space across the street. That location, however, presented the same site challenges as the original. The possibility of a new home for the Signature looked dismal.

In came in the Related Companies in 2008, developing a LEED-Silver 60-story residential condominium and 25-story hotel in the heart of the Theater District at 440 W 42nd Street. Related stuck a deal with the city to get additional floors in exchange for dedicating a portion of their four-story base to the Signature, which got the equivalent of half a city block, or around 74,000 sq ft, occupying the entire second and third floors.

"Because of our four-year relationship at that point with Frank [Gehry], because of all the work we've done together, we all sort of learned to stick with it," Houghton said.

The new space allowed the layout to change entirely-from performance spaces stacked on top of each to a centrally connected one, where each theater, the rehearsal studios, the cafe and the bookshop are all accessible from one main lobby.

"One of the key factors was to create a scale that was accessible to the average person, that a person did not feel dwarfed by it," Houghton said. "The additional piece is that this intimate scale is shared with the artists. The audience and the the artists experience one another by being accessible to one another-each has to pass through the same social space. We have no back entrance."

Only one of the three theaters was cut in size, from 499 seats at the World Trade Center site to 299. The rest of the plans for individual spaces remain unchanged: In addition to the 299-seat End Stage, there is the 235-flexible-seat Courtyard theater, and the 190-seat Jewel Box, inspired by European opera houses. In addition to poured concrete, it's the modest plywood-albeit the bent and twisted kind of Gehry's style, and different in each of the three theaters-that is the material of choice throughout.

The cost of the new theater is $60 million, raised in a public-private partnership-although, as Houghton points out, it's unfair to compare it to the $700 million original plans as the Joyce had a larger part of the overall cost.

The Signature will also have 50 ft of the street facade and a structural stairway going up to the second-floor lobby-and get to remain in the same neighborhood it has called home for over a decade.

"Everything we were trying to do at the World Trade Center we were able to do better at 42nd Street," said Houghton.

The curtains rise January 2012.

Key Players

Owner: The Signature Theater Company, New York
Developer: Related Cos., New York
Theater Architect: Gehry Partners, Los Angeles
Construction Manager on the theater: Structure Tone, New York
Building Architect: Arquitectonica, Miami, and Ismael Leyva Architects, New York
Construction Manager on the builiding: Tishman Construction, New York

 

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