Known as the birthplace of renowned performers like Richie Havens, Jay-Z and Chris Rock, Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood has long been a focus of cosmopolitan African- American culture in New York City. Standing at the intersection of the community’s geographic edge and artistic heart, the Billie Holiday Theatre has served as a focal point of this cultural expression for more than 45 years. Thanks to a recent and long-overdue renovation designed by New York City-based Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects (MBB), improvements to the theater’s performance and support spaces, as well as new technology and crucial life-safety upgrades, bring this beloved space into the present.Opened in 1972 by the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., New York, “The Billie,” as it is fondly referred to—named for famed jazz singer Billie Holiday—was seen as a platform for homegrown talent. It also aimed to expose the nation’s second-largest black community to the arts and to enhance local pride. Playing host to performers like Samuel L. Jackson and Debbie Allen, the 200-seat theater quickly grew into a hub of African-American performing arts and culture. Over time, the theater also became a focal point for the community at large, serving as the anchor for a superblock called Restoration Plaza. By the 2000s, though, the facility itself struggled to keep up.
“The structure originally had been a bottling plant for the Sheffield Farms dairy company, so the building was not designed to support a performing arts program,” says Jeffrey Murphy, FAIA, MBB partner and project lead. “Out of necessity, the building structure was modified to accommodate the theater functions into an existing space and, as a result we encountered a number of overlapping programmatic challenges.”
Constraints presented by the former factory building, for example, required the stage to be asymmetrical and located far above the seating area, which compromised sightlines for much of the audience. “The theater also had limited wing area and fly space,” Murphy says. “Equally limiting, the stage’s construction precluded dynamic, high-impact dance performances.”
The project team faced another issue: Because the theater had never received a major renovation, the updated facility needed to address legacy issues relating to accessibility and life safety. “Other than a few isolated mezzanine seats reserved for persons with disabilities, the theater, its stage and its support spaces were not fully accessible,” Murphy explains. Additionally, despite basic upgrades over the life of the theater, major systems were beyond their useful life, and new upgrades to lighting, fire- and life-safety systems, as well as stage infrastructure, were needed for the theater to function as a top performance venue.
Improving the Theater’s Features
Despite previous challenges to finance repairs to the facility, the Billie Holiday The- atre benefited from city funding through the New York City Department of Design and Construction Design Excellence Program, initiated by the Bloomberg administration. Introduced in 2004, this initiative matched cultural institutions and design-focused architecture firms to undertake municipal or publicly funded projects. By connecting top-level firms with important cultural commissions at a reasonable fee, the Design Excellence program ensured millions of dollars of work and opened the door for mid-size firms, like MBB, to get involved in a sector previously dominated by larger offices.
On the other hand, the project’s budget and schedule demanded a cost-effective and highly creative approach to problem-solving—while capitalizing on facility opportunities. Murphy and the project team had a relatively modest outlay of $4.1 million for the entire gut renovation and expansion of this major performing arts space. With founding Executive Director Marjorie Moon and later Executive Director Dr. Indira Etwaroo’s visions of strengthening the theater’s bond with the community, enhancing its well-established identity and improving the relationship between audience and performer, the process could have been daunting. “With a limited budget, we had to prioritize needs,” Murphy notes. “We focused on providing state-of-the-art performance infrastructure and strengthening the features that make ‘The Billie’ an ideal community theater.”
With the joint goals of supporting performers and improving the overall audience experience, the project team undertook a series of upgrades to the 3,200-square-foot theater space itself. Redesigning the stage with a symmetrical thrust and reconfiguring the seating riser slope brought the performing surface into closer alignment with the seating area, creating improved sightlines. By expanding the stage area with new, sprung-maple flooring, the project team also opened the door for dance performances and other types of dynamic programming that the Billie Holiday Theatre hoped to bring the community.
PHOTOS: Francis Dzikowsk/OTTO (unless otherwise noted)
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