Built nearly a century ago, The Huntington Theatre is preparing for its second act as theater leaders move to fast-track a $55 million renovation of the venue, a marquee player in the broader wave of theater construction projects across Greater Boston.
The renovation, originally conceived as part of a residential tower project that’s been delayed, will enable the playhouse to reopen in the fall of 2022, if all goes according to plan. The Huntington Theatre Company, which owns and operates the venue, said the stepped-up timeline means the renovation will now be the first phase in a two-part construction project, which will eventually include a 14,000-square-foot lobby in the adjoining tower.
Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington, said that although the theater company remains committed to the full scope of the project, leadership decided to move up the renovation in part because of the pandemic, which has forced theaters across the country to go dark for the past year.
“We have a year-plus where we can’t produce plays,” said Maso. “Why don’t we try to take advantage of the downtime?”
Starting in August, the Huntington will produce a full slate of plays during 2021-22 season, Maso said. The productions will mainly take place at the theater company’s smaller South End location, the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, though it may produce one show at a larger venue in town.
The renovation is the most visible part of a company’s broader $110 million capital campaign, which will also provide operational funding while dramatically expanding the theater’s endowment, currently valued at $28 million. The transformative campaign, launched in 2017, has so far raised more than $81.5 million.
“It is really restoring the architectural glory of the building,” said Maso, who plans to formally announce the plans during a virtual event Thursday morning. “And then there are real updates and improvements to things like theater seating, sight lines, and all the mechanical systems of the building.”
The theater, which opened in 1925, will boast a new outdoor terrace, a new entrance and enclosed second-floor arcade, 29 all-gender public toilets, as well as a new elevator.
In the auditorium, larger, more comfortable seats will reduce seating capacity from 890 to roughly 750, though the number of wheelchair spaces will double to eight. And although the stage is getting new fly-rigging and acoustic systems, lighting fixtures, chandeliers, and many architectural details are being restored.
“Our idea is about bringing together the best of the past and the present,” said principal architect Jason Forney of Bruner/Cott and Associates. “It’s not a white-glove, historic preservation; it’s a reinterpretation of this historic space with a contemporary twist.”
Significantly, the renovation project will also transform a second floor rehearsal hall and event space, restoring wood paneling and refurbishing tall arched windows that have been covered for years.
The Huntington plans to rent the renovated theater, as well as the revamped rehearsal space, to other performing arts groups, many of which have struggled to find viable rehearsal and performance spaces in the city.
“Creating a totally modern, year-round facility means we will be able to expand our partnerships,” said Maso. “I expect that space to be a public space for most of the year.”
The Huntington’s project comes as plans for a number of other new theaters move forward in Greater Boston, including theaters in Kendall Square, the Seaport, and a new home for the American Repertory Theater in Allston.
Although the Huntington Theatre Company has called the Huntington Avenue playhouse home for years, it acquired the theater outright in 2017 after the venue’s longtime owner, Boston University, sold it to a developer. Under the terms of that 2017 deal, the Huntington would refurbish the theater in conjunction with the developer’s planned 32-story residential tower.
Toll Brothers Apartment Living has not given an updated timeline for when construction on the tower will begin.
“At this time we are refining our design and look forward to sharing more information as we progress toward construction,” the firm said in a statement, adding it was “excited to be a part of this transformative project.”
According to the 2017 agreement, once the tower is completed, the Huntington will take over the two-level, 14,000-square-foot lobby, a construction project Maso estimates will cost $9 million more.
“We’ll have this enormous expansion in two things,” he said. “One is the public amenities of the building. There will be a bar, food service, and a window onto Huntington Avenue, [but] we also will have the capacity to create small performance venues and programming capacity.”
As part of the capital campaign, Huntington board chairman David Epstein and trustee Betsy Epstein have promised $9 million as a “non-naming” gift for the theater, ensuring the the Huntington Theatre will keep its name in the future. (The venue has had many names over the years, most recently, the Huntington Avenue Theatre.)
Theater manager Kat Herzig said the building was in dire need of renovation, with heating and cooling systems held together for years with “bubblegum and dreams.”
“One of our weekly tasks was to do a full building walk to see what pipe had sprung a leak,” she said. “Now we actually get to make it beautiful again.”