Arts

Emerson College considering plans to turn Colonial Theatre into student center

Emerson College is considering radically transforming the Colonial Theatre, converting the fabled playhouse into a flexible college dining hall/performance space as part of what’s being referred to as the Colonial Student Center, according to documents recently obtained by the Globe.

The plans would position the Colonial Building and adjacent Walker Building as the front porch of Emerson’s campus, housing an Emerson College cafe and visitors’ center, accessible from the street.

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In an interview on Wednesday, Emerson College president Lee Pelton emphasized that the plan detailed in the documents is but one of several options the college is considering and that no final decision has been reached.

“What drives this in great measure is placemaking and establishing a stronger physical identity for the campus,” Pelton said. “The idea is that the visitor center, the Emerson cafe, the Colonial, and other academic and student-life activities on the ground level would provide a stronger and more interesting and more animated mark for the portal that leads you into Emerson.”

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The exterior of the Colonial Theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places. A decades-old petition to designate the theater’s interior as a landmark with the city of Boston remains pending.

News of the potential plan brought mixed reactions from figures in the theater community, which for weeks has been speculating about the Colonial’s future.

“It would be a shame not to have the Colonial. It’s a gem,” said Rich Jaffe, president of Broadway in Boston, which has presented touring Broadway shows at the Colonial for years. But, he added, “there are other venues, so there would still be touring shows in Boston without the Colonial.”

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But Jon Platt, a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer who ran the Colonial for years, was more harsh, lamenting what he saw as a plan that would “deliberately defile and destroy the greatest theatrical landmark in North America.” That, he said, “is entirely opposite of the school’s mission statement.”

In an earlier statement to the Globe, Pelton said Emerson was committed not only to preserving the building’s architectural history and stage, but to sustaining and advancing the arts in Boston. “We have done so through our restoration of the Cutler Majestic Theatre, the Paramount Theatre and Center as well as the creation of ArtsEmerson,” the college’s acclaimed theatrical production arm.

His statement added that any proposal would be “reviewed and voted on by the Emerson board of trustees, shared with the city, and will go through a rigorous community engagement process.”

Until now, the college had been reticent about its intentions for the 1,700-seat theater it purchased in 2006, telling the Globe in September that “all options are on the table.” Emerson said it planned to close the theater, long viewed as a crown jewel of Boston’s theater district, for at least a year after the touring version of Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon” ends its run Oct. 11.

According to architectural renderings and other documents obtained by the Globe, the potential plan in question calls for the Colonial Theatre’s orchestra-level theater seating to be removed and replaced with round dining tables and countertop seating. Portions of walls would be demolished, giving the dining hall access to a new cafeteria-style food service area. The majority of the food serving area would be in the Walker Building, in a space that currently serves as a bookstore.

The theater’s opulent, barrel-vaulted lobby — modeled on the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles — could be given over to booth-style seating, and the sumptuous ladies lounge, where Bob Fosse once tap-danced upon the room’s onyx table beneath its murals of cherubs, would become an auxiliary dining room, according to the architectural plans, dated Sept. 18.

On the other side of the theater’s gilt-encrusted proscenium arch, the plans call for a movable door/acoustical wall that would set off space for a small black-box theater, to be created on top of the current stage, with its own entrance. Alternatively, the wall could be raised, converting the dining hall for possible larger productions on the main stage. The theater’s balconies would remain largely untouched.

According to Pelton, the reconfigured theater space could be used both for student productions and for performances, theatrical and otherwise, by outside groups.

“It’s wonderfully flexible,” Pelton said. “It reanimates the Colonial in a very profound and satisfying way that benefits Emerson College and the theatergoing public, especially the emerging small theater groups who continue to look for space for their performances.”

Pelton added that the theater has often been dark in the past two years and that this plan “will provide many more activities for not only our students, but also the public to engage with this really beautiful, magical theater.”

The proposed plan would also help further the school’s mission to train the next generation of artists, he said, and the theater space would “be available, under conditions I can’t predict, to nonprofit and professional companies in Boston.”

Documents obtained by the Globe indicate that Emerson College has awarded the Lee Kennedy Company, a general contractor in Quincy, the construction management contract for the plan in question. Walkthroughs of the Colonial with potential subcontractors were scheduled for the mornings of Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, with detailed budgets due on Oct. 7 at noon, the documents state.

Representatives of both the Lee Kennedy Company and Elkus Manfredi Architects, which drafted the architectural plans, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Colonial opened in 1900 with a lavish production of Ben Hur featuring eight live horses that ran on moving treadmills during the chariot scenes.

With its lavish interior of gold leaf, crimson walls, rococco adornments, and luxurious murals, the Colonial hosted numerous premieres and pre-Broadway tryouts throughout the 20th century, including “Porgy and Bess,” “La Cage aux Folles,” and “The Philadelphia Story.”

Pelton said that several cultural and arts leaders whom he’d consulted saw the school’s logic.

“It’s a very long list, and their reaction has been quite positive,” said Pelton, who declined to provide names. “Their positive reaction emerges from a reaction that this particular plan, which has not been approved by the board, animates the facility.”

Josiah Spaulding Jr., president and CEO of the Citi Performing Arts Center, whose contract to operate the Colonial Theatre ends this month, did not respond to requests for comment.

John Barros, Boston’s chief of economic development, said in a statement that Emerson had alerted City Hall that it was “looking to further activate that block on Boylston Street by providing more public access on a daily basis.... [W]e are fully supportive and confident that they will arrive at a solution that meets the community’s expectations.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay
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