When Guild Hall opened its doors in 1931, it was the crown jewel of art and culture in East Hampton. Through the years, the facility’s prestige grew as did its collection of work by renowned artists of the East End. Guild Hall also developed a reputation as a prime venue for entertainment with many a big name of the day gracing the stage of the John Drew Theater.
But by the end of the 20th century, cutting edge 1930s technology was just not cutting it anymore. There were lighting and storage issues in the art galleries, while problematic temperature and humidity control seriously hampered the curator’s ability to secure art loans from other museums.
In the theater, an uneven and noisy heating and air conditioning system and aging seats made it tough for audiences to comfortably hear what was happening on stage. Behind the scenes, the dated lighting, sound and rigging systems posed a challenge to crew members while dressing rooms and limited facilities taxed performers.
It was clear, a make-over was in order.
“At first we thought, ‘We’ll just renovate,’” said Ruth Appelhof, Guild Hall’s executive director. “Then we realized it was a huge undertaking.”
Ask any homeowner — renovation projects are never easy to live through and for the last few years, the staff of Guild Hall has been dealing with renovation on a massive scale.
Guild Hall came up with a capital campaign goal of $15.1 million for the project — $12.5 million has been raised to date — and, working with Robert A.M. Stern Architects, designed an ambitious four phase renovation plan for the 22,675 square foot structure. Because Guild Hall is in the historic village of East Hampton, the architects were required to work within the footprint of the original building. It was also determined that throughout the whole process, Guild Hall would continue to offer programming for the community.
“We never closed in four and a half years of renovation,” said Appelhof.
Phases I and II of the project focused on the museum’s three galleries — the Woodhouse, Moran and Spiga — totaling 2,875 square feet. That renovation was completed in 2004. Phase III of the project, which was completed in 2006, encompassed 7,000 square feet and included new administrative offices and an education center.
But by far, the most ambitious part of the project was the 12,800 square foot renovation of Phase IV, which included a complete overhaul of the John Drew Theater and all its systems, as well as a redesign of the lobby area and museum shop.
Though the official re-opening celebration for Guild Hall is scheduled for Memorial Day weekend, last Friday, Appelhof led a sneak-peak tour of the newly refurbished facility, along with the John Drew Theater’s artistic director Josh Gladstone, and Randy Correll from Robert A.M. Stern Architects.
“The challenges were the footprint,” explained Correll. “Lots of programs go on here. There’s always activity in the theater, as well as art shows and educational programs. The galleries are on either end with the theater on the third side and there are overlapping events.”
“We tweaked the circulation to make it work better,” he added. “We enlarged the lobby. We also stripped the theater down to the walls and put it back the way it was.”
Without a doubt the highlight of the massive renovation is indeed the newly refurbished John Drew Theater, and when walking into the space for the first time, audiences will probably be struck by how much the renovation resembles the original.
“Guild Hall was built in 1931, and the goal was to retain much of the charm — especially in the theater,” explained Correll.
Back are the painted circus tent stripes on the ceiling, as is the period wallpaper — but both have been entirely recreated and now meet code for safety and fire standards. Overhead, visitors will still see the famous balloon chandelier that has long been the centerpiece of the theater.
“It’s been entirely remade,” said Correll. “The old one was put together with tin foil, wire and bubble gum.”
Another improvement is the winch which lowers the new chandelier when its time for a light bulb change. It’s a feature the original didn’t boast.
“I loved being a part of the heritage and bringing it back to life,” said Correll
But the real beauty of the new theater lies in what cannot be seen when first walking into the space before a show. These are improvements that can be felt in the new seating and a much improved HVAC system, heard through the state of the art sound system, and seen on stage in the form of totally upgraded lighting, film equipment and rigging mechanisms.
“Getting connections through a historic building and finding space to run systems is a challenge,” admitted Correll. “In theaters, air conditioning needs to run at a low velocity for the sound, so you need big ducts so it doesn’t make noise. We found trenches — steam pipes — along the sides of the building to use.”
The John Drew Theater’s technical director is Todd Goldblatt, and on Friday, he offered a demonstration of just what the new lighting, sound and projection equipment can do. When played through the theater’s new surround-sound system, an action packed clip from the movie “Hulk” made the whole room rumble.
“It wasn’t just the architects,” said Goldblatt. “We had world class consultants working with us on this renovation. The octagonal shape of the theater and the slope of the ceiling made it an acoustic challenge. We wanted the best to help us.”
“All the systems are integrated,” he added. “Coordinating was hard, but we worked together to get it done.”
On the basement level, the architects were able to dig deeper and accommodate new dressing rooms, a laundry area and storage facilities for costumes, props and the massive amounts of audio and lighting equipment the theater now boasts. A new star dressing room suite was added just off stage right — complete with its own restroom and shower.
This is all great news to Gladstone who, for the past two years, has presented all the theater’s productions “on the road” at assorted venues throughout the East End in order to accommodate the renovation. He’s looking forward to returning home and putting the much improved John Drew Theater to good use.
“We’re very excited to re-open,” said Gladstone. “We have a greatly enhanced stage and can and do more than we ever did before. The first three rows of seats are removable. In terms of dance, there’s a spring floor now, which dancers prefer. Overall, the caliber of acoustics will attract a higher level of performer and they’ll be inclined to come back.”
The grand re-opening weekend for Guild Hall kicks off on Friday, May 22 with Alec Baldwin hosting a Hamptons International Film Festival screening of “The Cove,” which won the 2009 Audience Award for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.
The grand re-opening gala comes Saturday, May 23, when the stage of the John Drew Theater is christened by Liza Minnelli (fresh from Broadway) presenting “An Intimidate Evening with Liza” accompanied by Billy Stritch. Sunday, May 24 is the community’s day to come to Guild Hall for a day full of live music by local bands, ribbon cuttings, free admission to the museum’s Artist Members Exhibition, art workshops for children and refreshments in the refurbished gardens. A full slate of offerings follows throughout the summer, from classic foreign films from the Janus Collection, American Musical Theater Salutes, spoken word events with renowned authors, kids performances, music and more.
Though the big stars initiate the stage in late May, the John Drew Theater is already open for business. A Naked Stage play reading marathon will be offered the weekend of April 24 and from April 17 to 19, the Hampton Ballet Theatre School present their spring ballet production of “The Littlest Mermaid.” The Springs Community Theater will also be presenting a production this spring.
In the Guild Hall galleries, the 71st annual Artist Members Exhibition opens April 25 and runs through May 30. A show featuring the work of Grace Hartigan and Taryn Simon follows in June and in August, “The Art of Fashion in the Hamptons” an exhibit featuring the work of nine famous fashion designers with an affiliation with Long Island will be featured.
Guild Hall is located at 158 Main Street, East Hampton. For more information about the upcoming season, call 324-0806.