Henry Miller Gets a New Theatre

By Robert Simonson
28 Nov 2009

The façade of Henry Miller's Theatre.
The façade of Henry Miller's Theatre.
Photo by © dBox for Cook+Fox Architects

Passing through its historic façade, Playbill.com takes a walking tour of Broadway's newest venue — Henry Miller's Theater.


There has been a lot of reporting in recent months about the "newly renovated" Henry Miller's Theatre or the "newly restored" Henry Miller's Theatre. Cook+Fox Architects LLP, the outfit that brought the 1918 Broadway theatre in question back to life, wants you to know that there's no such thing.

"There are various words floating around," said Pam Campbell, a senior associate with Cook+Fox. "People have said a 'restored' theatre and a 'reconstructed' theatre, which isn't entirely correct. It's a new theatre."

One can't blame people for being a bit confused when they look at the front of the West 43rd Street venue named for Miller, a once-prominent actor and theatre-manager of the late-19th-century and early-20th-century American theatre. It has the same neo-Georgian façade of the original 1918 theatre. It was kept intact because it had been landmarked by the city. But what lies behind the face, however, is almost entirely new.

The interior — which first played host, on April 1, 1918, to The Fountain of Youth and went on to live many lives, functioning as a movie house and a discotheque, before housing latter-day hits like Cabaret and Urinetown — was completely demolished to make way for the new Bank of America tower. Still, that doesn't mean Cook+Fox forgot all about Miller and his original intentions when he built the theatre.

"Henry Miller had some pretty strong ideas on what a theatre should be," said Campbell, "so we had all that to go on, which really influenced the new design."

Echoes of Miller's input begin in the unusual, oval-shaped lobby. The modest space mirrors exactly the size and location of the original lobby. The ceiling, with its decorative crown moldings and central frieze of dancing muses, is also original, having been taken down in pieces and then put back, like a jigsaw puzzle, at the appropriate time. The first lobby had only a single box office window, to the left as you walked in. That wouldn't suffice today, so that window now looks on to an additional room where a multiple-windowed box office is now situated. The not-for-profit Roundabout Theatre Company has a long-term lease; its Bye Bye Birdie revival is the current occupant.

"Neo-Georgian was about making everything domestic in scale," said Campbell, explaining Miller's aesthetic, "the idea that we're going going to have this performance in a room and share that together, rather than what he called a 'spectacular.' That style came from the Little Theatre Movement, which Miller really subscribed to."

Accordingly, Cook+Fox tried to keep the theatre as intimate as possible. Seating jumped from only 950 seats, in 1918, to 1,055 seats today. Box seats, while not as popular today as they were a century ago, were included in the theatre's design because, "It really helps draw the eye into the stage," said Campbell. "We felt is was better than flat walls on the sides."

"We wanted to keep this room as compact as possible, going back to the idea that Henry Miller had about it feeling like everyone's in the one room, and everything's focused on the actor. When you stand on the stage, you really can see people in the back row, their faces."

Still, she admitted, the physical space was bigger and slightly deeper than the original Miller. There is a very practical reason for that. "This is a modern building. The theatre that was here wasn't meeting the modern building codes. It was operating under a temporary cabaret license."

The theatre also appears bigger from the street. The new building extends beyond the first theatre's footprint by 22 feet on either side. These sections, which include extended lobby space and stairways, have glass outer walls, making them visible from the outside. Side walls, made of a terra cotta material similar in hue to the brickface on the facade, create a sense a connection between the old and new portions of the frontage.

The rear of the façade of Henry Miller's Theatre during construction.
"One of the things that was important to us was that the facade didn't seem like this little, stuck-on, brick façade on a big glass building," said Campbell. "This design let us continue the side walls of the façade into the interior to make it feel like a complete box, a complete volume instead of just the façade. So when people approach it from the street, they really see the whole volume of the theatre." Continued...