Public Theater begins building renovation

Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, Executive Director Andrew D. Hamingson and Board Chairman Warren Spector officially launched the GOING PUBLIC Capital Campaign on 9 Mar 2010 at a ceremonial groundbreaking event attended by more than 150 people including, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate D. Levin, and Board Members Gail Papp, Liev Schreiber and Sam Waterston.

The packed lobby at 425 Lafayette Street was filled with artists who attended the hour-long event to commemorate the next phase of the The Public’s long and celebrated history. Attendees included Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Laura Benanti, Michael Cerveris, Audra McDonald, Will Swenson, Gloria Reuben, Nilo Cruz, Christopher Durang, David Henry Hwang, Richard Nelson, Richard Foreman, John Weidman, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jay O. Sanders, Chay Yew, Daniel Sullivan and Michael Greif.

“This is an important day for The Public Theater. We have been working toward this renovation for the last 10 years and, with this official groundbreaking, we are bringing this landmark 19th century building into the 21st century,” said Executive Director Andrew D. Hamingson. “This beloved building will become more accessible and more comfortable for our audiences, artists and staff but will remain one of the most vibrant theater spaces in the world.”

“This renovation of The Public is about the public,” said Artistic Director Oskar Eustis. “It is about celebrating this theater as a community gathering point, the mothership of downtown theaters, where artists and audiences rub shoulders and experience themselves as part of one magnificent, democratic city.”

Designed by Polshek Partnership Architects, this highly anticipated renovation will completely remodel the public spaces of The Public Theater and mark the first-ever Capital Campaign in the organization’s 55-year history. The Capital Campaign, comprised of public and private funds, has already raised $28 million dollars toward a $35 million renovation. Leadership gifts have been made by the City of New York, Warren Spector and Margaret Whitton, The LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, Arielle Tepper Madover and The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and the Shiva family.

“We are so proud to officially launch our GOING PUBLIC Capital Campaign today that will ensure that daring and vital theater will continue to be performed on these stages for years to come,” said Board Chairman Warren Spector. “With the invaluable commitment of our board and many other Public Theater supporters, we hope to reach our goal by the end of the calendar year. We are indebted to all those who have made this next chapter for The Public Theater possible.”

The construction will revitalize the historic Astor Place building and strengthen the organization for years to come. The plans include an expanded and refurbished lobby (an additional 468 square feet); an exterior entrance staircase with two ADA-accessible ramps and a glass covered canopy; a complete restoration of the theater’s historic brownstone façade; a complete upgrade of the theater’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems; an increase in restroom facilities by 350%; an expanded and centrally located box office; a new mezzanine level including a community room/lounge with a capacity for 150 people; improved and expanded concessions service; the incorporation of energy-efficient technology; and improved street visibility including six new poster boxes and exterior lighting.

“This expansion marks an important moment for The Public, whose dynamic programming serves so many New Yorkers each year,” said Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate D. Levin. “The Department of Cultural Affairs and our partners in City government look forward to working with the board and staff to implement this project and increase the institution’s capacity to engage artists and audiences from across the City and beyond.”

“The former Astor Library building has been center stage for The Public Theater for the last half century. This historic building is a point of pride for the borough and I applaud this inspired project to revitalize and expand the legacy of 425 Lafayette Street,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer. “The mission of The Public Theater has always been to bring the wealth of New York’s theater community to households across the city. With this renovation, The Public Theater will open the door to new audiences and usher in the latest chapter of one of New York’s treasured public spaces.”

The Public Theater will continue to offer full programming in the Newman and Martinson theaters and reduced programming in the Anspacher theater during construction. The box office will be relocated to the Shiva Theater on the ground level and will be easily accessible and will operate on a normal schedule.

Joe’s Pub will continue to provide cutting edge programming during construction but will close temporarily to accommodate the construction of a new entrance later in the process. While the Pub will no longer be serving hot food as the kitchen is being expanded and doubled in size, a full menu of delicious dining options will still be available.

The process of refurbishing The Public’s historic Astor Place home has been carefully conceived and designed to emphasize the building’s beautiful architecture while making the facilities and lobby space more comfortable and convenient for audiences. The renovation plans emphasize The Public’s ongoing commitment to environmental responsibility and will incorporate the use of energy-efficient technology that will eventually reduce The Public’s annual CO2 production by an estimated 519 tons and help The Public pursue a LEED rating.

As part of the building renovation and in conjunction with the City of New York’s Percent for Art program, The Public Theater will incorporate a significant piece of artwork in the renovated lobby. “Shakespeare Machine,” conceived by media artist Ben Rubin, will be a display screen installation that will cycle continuously through the text of Shakespeare’s plays and will be organized as a series of compositions, with no composition ever repeating twice. The intention is to create a continuously unfolding kaleidoscope of language in the bustling Public Theater lobby.

History of The Public Theater’s Home at 425 Lafayette Street

The Public Theater’s headquarters on 425 Lafayette Street was commissioned by John Jacob Astor just before his death in 1848. This was the first of the great free public reference libraries in the United States and it first opened its doors in 1854 with more than 80,000 volumes. The building is noteworthy not only for its attractive facade, or for its interior which retains some of New York's most remarkable Victorian spaces, but for the manner in which it was constructed. The building consists of three independent buildings constructed over a 30-year period by architects Alexander Saeltzer (south wing, 1849-1853), Griffith Thomas (central wing, 1856-1859), and Thomas Stent (north wing, 1879-1881).

In 1897 an agreement was reached to consolidate a number of libraries and build The New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. The Astor Library continued to operate until 1911, when The New York Public Library was completed. In 1920 the structure was bought by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) who remodeled the building to serve as a receiving station, aid center, dormitory and synagogue for thousands of newly arrived immigrants. Over its 44 year tenancy, HIAS processed and/or housed approximately 250,000 immigrants – one of whom was Mandy Patinkin’s grandfather.

Joe Papp acquired the building in 1965 with help from the City of New York and it became one of the first buildings to be declared a New York City Landmark. The Public Theater’s mission - that arts should be accessible to all regardless of socioeconomic background - echoes the democratic legacy of the Astor Library that made knowledge available to everyone. The complex was transformed into a functioning performance center and still operates as The Public Theater’s downtown home, housing five theaters, administrative and production offices, rehearsal space and Joe’s Pub.

Now entering its 55th year, The Public Theater, under Artistic Director Oskar Eustis and Executive Director Andrew D. Hamingson, is one of the nation’s preeminent cultural institutions, producing new plays, musicals, and productions of classics at its downtown and at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The Public’s mandate to create a theater for all New Yorkers continues to this day onstage and through extensive outreach and education programs. Each year, over 250,000 people attend Public Theater-related productions and events at six downtown stages, including Joe’s Pub, and Shakespeare in the Park. The Public has won 42 Tony Awards, 149 Obies, 40 Drama Desk Awards and four Pulitzer Prizes. The Public has brought 52 shows to Broadway, including Sticks and Bones; That Championship Season; A Chorus Line; The Pirates of Penzance; The Tempest; Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk; On the Town; The Ride Down Mt. Morgan; Topdog/Underdog; Elaine Stritch at Liberty; Take Me Out; Caroline, or Change; Well; Passing Strange; and, most recently, the current Tony Award-winning revival of Hair.

The Public Theater