Three Months Notice

By Robin Catalano
Published in "Stage Directions" magazine

Theater Space
Inside the newly restored Palace Theatre

Three Months Notice
A $5.5 million renovation project is performed quickly and efficiently at a picturesque Albany theater.

By Robin Catalano

Think it’s impossible to complete large-scale renovations to a 2,700-seat theater in just 14 weeks?  Not according to the architects, contractors and painters who worked that miracle on Albany, New York’s Palace Theatre.  With just a little more than three months and $5.5 million, the 72-year-old theater was given a dramatic face-lift.

Venue Reinvention
Created in 1931, the Palace was designed by John Eberson for RKO and was the largest of several lavish movie houses built in Albany during the Depression.  After the 1940 Supreme Court antitrust decision against Paramount, RKO divested its theater holdings and turned control of the Palace over to the FAST Theaters chain.  FAST used the venue as a concert hall and movie house until 1969, when the City of Albany assumed ownership.  Throughout the 1970s, the theater was used for pop concerts, and in the 1980s, the Albany Symphony Orchestra took over management.  In 1989, the nonprofit Palace Performing Arts Center was formed to direct the theater’s business.  In an effort to revitalize the downtown area and create an arts and entertainment district, Albany committed to fixing the theater in the early years of the new millennium.

Although most of the theater’s original Austrian baroque design features were still intact, the theater’s walls, murals, floors and trim had been painted over in a monochromatic brown scheme.  The seats and lighting fixtures had fallen into disrepair and the room that housed the electrical equipment was so outdated that the crew had dubbed it the “Frankenstein room.”  According to project manager Marcia Allen of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, the architecture firm overseeing the renovation, the early phases needed to include the refurbishment of the lighting fixtures and seats, the removal of hazardous materials and the upgrading of bathrooms; but the company also opted to put decorative work at the top of the list.  She explains “It got the community really excited about the project.”

The more technical work included a new fan-coil cooling system to replace the ancient evaporative cooling system, insulation of the ducts and the installation of a new emergency generator.  Modifications made the bathrooms handicap accessible, and spaces were added for wheelchair seating.  The team also cleaned the existing façade and fixed the masonry, replacing the old, manually lettered marquee.

The project has not been without obstacles.  Allen describes a panicked moment just before the newly restored theater’s bow in 2003 for Albany’s “First Night” an annual citywide celebration held on New Year’s Eve.  “There was not a moment to spare before First Night, and we realized there was some leaking coming from the mezzanine bathroom.  They had to cut through the plaster, fix the pipes and then redo the plaster – all within a very short space of time.

Painted Lady
The most comprehensive and expensive part of the project was the painting.  With the help of Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wisconsin, the entire facility was repainted for about $1.5 million.  “We got lucky with Conrad Schmitt because they had all their staging in Connecticut for a job, so we were able to work our project into their schedules,” says Mike Goard, Einhorn Yaffee Prescott’s project architect.

Under the watchful eye of Conrad Schmitt’s project Manager Tony Hanley, 10 to 25 craftsmen and artisans worked on the theater on any given day.  Hanley’s team developed a color palette by using an "IAD system – investigation, analysis and documentation of original designs in key areas of the theater.”  They then set up about 1,200 frames of OSHA-approved scaffolding reaching 70 feet high and spanning the entire ceiling and wall area of the Palace.  The original stencil patterns were uncovered from layers of brown paint and the artwork was enhanced.  According to Allen, “We made some concessions on the paint.  There were 28 different colors of paint in the original theater, but cutting back to 24 cut costs and (made the job) less labor intensive.”

Because the theater had been decorated with lead-based paints, the Conrad Schmitt team had to encapsulate the entire venue with a lead coat to provide a protective barrier and base coat for other paints and finishes.  The murals were cleaned by removing the protective varnish, and the art was retouched.  A conservator’s varnish was applied to seal the restored murals.

After that, the workers moved on to the floors.  Hanley recounts his team’s surprise at finding that not only had the vestibule’s marble floors been primed and painted, but their seams had also been caulked and plastered.  He admits, “It was tedious and time-consuming, and was a little bit of a challenge for us.”

In the meantime, the old but high-quality body-form seats were sent out to Irwin Seating of Grand Rapids, Michigan, for reupholstering.  “We didn’t use historic fabric on the seats because they needed to be cleanable,” comments Allen.  “The painters did pieces of the floor and moved the scaffolding as they went so we could install seats,” says Goard.  “We were installing seats even on the day of First Night.”

New wall fabrics and draperies were also brought in, including a main curtain and valance for the stage and draperies throughout the vestibule.  Like the seat fabrics, the carpets are not historic, but, in Allen’s words are “in keeping with the historic theme.”

Rigging project managers from BMI Supply, Inc. – the theatrical contractor based in Queensbury, New York – designed and installed a motorized winch system for the giant chandelier that illuminates the center of the house.  The chandelier which weighs approximately 1,800 lbs. can now be raised and lowered at the push of a button for maintenance and cleaning.  Previously, the chandelier was manipulated by three stagehands climbing into the attic and simultaneously operating three hand winches.  BMI Supply also supplied the dimming and distribution during Phase II of the project.

Despite the scope of the project, Hanley insists that the work itself was not harder than expected.  “The most challenging aspect was the time frame,” he says.  “Condensing what would typically take six to seven months into a three-month window was tough.”

Future Perfect
Upcoming improvements to the Palace will encompass the renovation of the theater offices, an electrical upgrade, platforms for stage speakers, a refurbished orchestra pit and the addition of an elevator.  Other phases, which are dependent on fundraising, include expansion of both the stage and the lobby, the addition of more bathrooms and a loading dock, and updating of the dressing rooms.  In the meantime, the theater will continue to host pop and classical concerts, small plays, dance and gospel shows, and even local community events.

“People shouldn’t feel like they have to do everything at once,” says Allen, who faced the daunting challenge of the Palace Theatre with a detailed plan.  In fact, offers Goard, “When we put the documents together, we did a lot of alternates so we could pick and choose what we could afford to do and when “In the end, everything worked beautifully – even on a three-month schedule.  “Everyone wanted to get it done on deadline,” says Goard, “and they all went above and beyond.”

-  Marquee de Mod
LED technology adds a touch of modernity to the Palace.
The Palace’s original marquee was replaced by a fully animated electronic marquee like the one in Times Square.  The Palace’s marquee uses LEDs instead of incandescent lighting, which provides energy and cost savings, including a money-back deal from New York State Energy Research and Development.  The marquee, which wraps around three corners of the building, is also significant because it can display the logos of advertisers, an all-important component of the theater’s ongoing renovation.  Marcia Allen remarks, “It’s a nice blend of history and modern technology.”

Robin Catalano is a professional writer and editor based in Stephentown, NY.

-  Dream Team
Who’s behind the restoration of the Palace Theatre

Einhorn Yaffee Prescott
Architecture and Engineering, P.C.

Structural Engineering (Phase 2B):
Ryan Biggs Associates, P.C.

Paint Restoration:
Conrad Schmitt Paint Studios, Inc.

Chair Restoration:
Irwin Seating Company, Inc.

Marquee Manufacturer:
Patterson Sign Group

Construction Manager:
BBL Construction Services

General Construction:
Rosch Brothers, Inc.

Three Months Notice (PDF 10.80 Mb)

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