Pull Up a Stoop, Grab a Seat: The Public Theater's Newly Democratic Facade, and Other Improvements

Special Features   Pull Up a Stoop, Grab a Seat: The Public Theater's Newly Democratic Facade, and Other Improvements The Public Theater is changing the way it greets the world.
Oskar Eustis
Oskar Eustis Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The lobby and entrance of the downtown Manhattan nonprofit have been girdled in construction for a few years now. On May 23, members of the theatre and of Ennead Architects, which has handled the redesign, gathered before members of the press to discuss the results.

One of the changes has been apparent to recent theatre patrons, as well as any passersby on Lafayette Street, for months — the arrival of a set of sloping steps leading up to the front entrance. In the past, one entered the theatre complex at street level and a set of stairs, leading to the lobby, greeted one immediately inside.

To the Public and Ennead, this had to change if the Public was to fully realize its role as a gathering place for artists and theatre lovers.

"This is not just a place to come see a show," said Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public. "This is place to gather. Lobbies matter. Those of who spend our lives in the American theatre know that. This new lobby is perhaps an expression of the most important part of our mission. Most of the things we do exist at other institutions. There are other people who do Shakespeare, even in Central Park. There are lots of people who develop new plays. There are people who do experimental theatre, political theatre, musical theatre. But there is no place where all those come under one big umbrella, where all those artists and audiences see themselves as one big group, not as niche groups."

The idea of giving the Public a stoop is an old one, dating back to the days of the company's founder, Joseph Papp. "In 1990, Fred Rose called me and said I'd like you to meet Joe Papp," recalled Joseph Fleischer, a founding partner at Ennead (which was formerly known at Polshek Partnership). "He has ideas about things. He was not well at the time, but still in the saddle. Out of that meeting came a sketch of a master plan that did things like put a theatre on the roof of the building, which we quickly abandoned because of landmark problems."

Papp died in 1991. There was a change of leadership at the Public, and then a recession in the early '90s. Plans were tabled. In 1994, said Fleischer, talks started again. Discussions kicked into high gear with the arrival of Eustis in 2005.

"I've been involved in it a very long time," said Fleischer. "One of the first things I remember from that first conversation with Joe Papp was that it would be wonderful if there was a front stoop."

In the theatre's thinking, the stoop represents a welcome. Far from being annoyed that the people of New York have started hanging about the steps, the theatre is delighted. "As the weather started to warm up, I'd notice little pods of people meeting, eating sandwiches and coffee," said Patrick Willingham, the Public's executive director. "It's happening."

A rendering of the new Public Theater exterior
courtesy of the Public Theater
Joseph Papp

There are wheelchair-accessible ramps on either side of the entrance, and a glass canopy above, which will provide cover during rainy times, and also provide an unobstructed view of the restored 19th-century facade, which will be lit up at night.

The lobby, meanwhile, is being returned to something more closely resembling the building's original design, when it opened as the Astor Library in 1853. Work will be completed in October.

"In terms of the lobby, we took our cues from the original plan," said Ennead's Stephen Chu, the project's manager. "There was a stoop in front of the building, which led up to a grand lobby from which open archways on each side led you to adjacent places and a grand staircase led you to the stacks above."

In the years after the building ceased to be a library, the stairs were pushed inside and the archways were partially bricked up. The archways have now been restored. That, and the elimination of the stairwell, adds a renewed grandeur to the space. The general feel is akin to a indoor piazza.

The box office, formerly tucked into an awkward nook in a north corner of the lobby, will now be placed centrally, at the rear of the room. Taking center stage will be an oval bar, at which snacks and drinks can be purchased day and night. On the newly expanded mezzanine level, the Rockwell Group is designing a lounge area, where food and drink will be served; it will be open before and after performances. As at Joe's Pub, the food program will be headed by celebrity chef Andrew Carmellini and restaurateur Luke Ostrom. All told, the lobby space has been increased by 170 percent. The cost of the project has been $40 million.

"The lounge, the pub, the overall food service is representative of what this project was about, which was creating a place for community to come together, a place where audience and artists interact," said Willingham.

City-wide, the New York nonprofit theatre seems to be entering a new era of inclusion, designing fresh spaces with an eye toward encouraging interaction between audience and artists, and converting theatres from simple performance halls to artistic agoras. The Public's plan echoes the general intent behind recently unveiled spaces run by the Signature Theatre Company and Lincoln Center Theater.

A final, whimsical touch is a sculpture called the Shakespeare Machine. Created by artist Ben Rubin, it hangs from the ceiling above the lobby's oval concession stand, like a chandelier. The work features 37 LED display screens on which fragments of Shakespeare's plays appear in succession. The text will continuously change. No combination of words will ever be repeated.

A rendering of the new Public Theater lobby
courtesy of the Public Theater
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