From today's New York Times
December 12, 2001
Dawning of a New Age for the Biltmore
By DAVID W. DUNLAP
It seems like ages since the Age of Aquarius dawned at the Biltmore Theater and recent years have not been kind. Fire swept through it. Water penetrated its walls. Scavengers made off with its fixtures. And all along, the abandoned playhouse seemed to resist every attempt to resuscitate it.
Until now. Ground will be broken today — or at least shovelfuls of glitter will be tossed during a news conference — to mark the impending renovation of the Biltmore, a landmark theater at 261 West 47th Street, which is to be occupied by the Manhattan Theater Club when it reopens in 2003.
The rehabilitation of the Biltmore is tied to the construction of a 51- story apartment tower next door, on Eighth Avenue. Both are being undertaken by Biltmore 47 Associates, a partnership of the Jack Parker Corporation and the Moinian Group, which owns the Biltmore, where the nonprofit Manhattan Theater Club will be a tenant.
Once home to "Hair" and "Barefoot in the Park," but dark since 1987, the Biltmore will emerge from the renovation with a smaller auditorium. The rear wall is to be moved about 22 feet forward, reducing the seating to 650 from 950 and yielding a more intimate space.
"You want the audience to feel as if they're in the same room as what's happening on stage," said Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club. "We're trying to create a theater that's warm, hospitable and first-rate."
In the space gained by shrinking the auditorium, there will be room for an upper lobby and patrons' lounge, an important amenity for a subscription-based theatrical organization. Another lounge will be gained by fully excavating the basement, in some places through bedrock.
Although the project began to take form more than a year ago, Barry Grove, the executive producer of the Manhattan Theater Club, said it had a special symbolism after the attack on New York, whose awful toll is evident at the firehouse just around the corner from the Biltmore.
"After 9/11," Mr. Grove said, "it's an important project for the theater as we go forward in this difficult and exciting time."
But neighbors are concerned about the impact of a new high-rise on Eighth Avenue — once a low-rise and low-rent area — particularly since the tower next to the Biltmore will be 20 stories taller than zoning would ordinarily allow, a bonus permitted by the city because the developers are rehabilitating the theater.
"When you bring in luxury housing, you change the demographics," said John Fisher, president of the Clinton Special District Coalition, a neighborhood group. "What does a developer need financially to rehab the Biltmore and make a profit? My feeling was, give him what he needs and not a penny more."
The theater renovation has been designed by Polshek Partnership Architects. While the firm is best known for the strikingly modern Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, the Biltmore project is more akin to its work at Carnegie Hall, in which existing features were restored and highlighted.
The rake, or angle, of the orchestra floor will be increased and the stepped seating areas of the balcony will be stretched a bit to create extra leg room. Otherwise, said Duncan Hazard, the partner in charge from the Polshek office, the auditorium will be largely restored and recreated. The project was unanimously approved by the City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
More modern touches will be found on the exterior of the building, which does not have landmark status. For example, there will be a new glass canopy, glass doors and small pinpoint spotlights in the sidewalk.
Even after the Biltmore opens, the Manhattan Theater Club will continue operating its 150- and 299-seat theaters at City Center on West 55th Street, between the Avenue of the Americas and Seventh Avenue.
The organization will announce a $35 million capital campaign today with the goal of raising $8 million for an endowment and $27 million to pay for the renovation and eventual purchase of the building from Biltmore 47 Associates, which Mr. Grove said he hoped to do after five years.
A good deal of the money has already been raised. Mr. Grove said the Manhattan Theater Club board had pledged about $10 million and New York City had appropriated $5 million. Biltmore 47 Associates will also discount the purchase price by $4.65 million, which is counted as a contribution.
The new tower, designed by Schuman Lichtenstein Claman Efron, will have 464 rental apartments, 30,000 square feet of commercial space, 6,000 square feet of retail space and an underground garage with about 60 spaces, said Robert S. Skolnick, executive vice president of the Jack Parker Corporation.
The view of Biltmore Theater from 47th Street