Rhode Island community continues with the $18 million restoration of its famed Newport Opera House Theater & Performing Arts Center
(New England Monthly, By Steven Chan)
If you ever have an opportunity to meet Newport architect Mohamad Farzan, of NewPort Architecture, consider this advice: Clear your mind of any preconceived notion regarding his profession. Do not anticipate Farzan to resemble a stereotype, one often mistakenly conceived due to previous experiences with personalities that have become complicated by the assembly of design, creativity, sceince, and physics, or a lifetime of praise which tends to inflate egos.
Farzan is a tall, quiet man, possess an attractive and humble demeanor. With a kind smile and calm voice, he speaks volumes of his work on one of Newport’s most impressive – as well as challenging – restoration projects attempted in decades, if not centuries, in the City by the Sea.
Inside the gutted lobby, amidst a crumbling ceiling, a newly installed elevator shaft, steel-beam supports, and a view of the new state-of-the-art stage, the dusty shell of a building – once the gem of Washington Square – is now the main office for the people responsible for rebuilding this historic theatre.
When asked his opinion about such an intensive and arduous project, Farzan succinctly shared his vision of the job entrusted to him and his firm. “We have two missions: to preserve the building because of its historic nature, and to make it work as a 21st-century performance space for the next generation. We are restoring history and renovating for world-class performances.”
Farzan is wholly committed to this task and takes pride in its progress as he points out the many hidden but important pieces it has taken to get this job this far along.
Of special interest and what is the frosting on this soon-to-be-completed cake, is the rooftop garden, a concept created by Board Chairperson Alison Vareika. Talking in the vast views of the harbor and entrace to the city, Vareika and Farzan joined together in creating what will be the most extraordinary indoor/outdoor spaces in town.
CELEBRATING 150 YEARS OF HISTORY
On December 28, 2017, the Newport Opera House Theater & Performing Arts Center celebrated a long legacy of providing art, culture, and entertainment to the city. Beginning in 1867, the Opera House was considered the grande dame of community centers along the road leading to the sea.
After the Civil War ended, an in decades that followed, leading performers and public intellectuals such as Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edwin Booth, John Barrymore, Mary Pickford, Wild Buffalo Bill Cody, Frederick Douglass, and John Philip Sousa, were among the many personalities to appeare on the Newport Opera House stage. The facility also housed important social and political movements such as a meeting place for abolitionists and the suffragettes,.
In 1929, the building was renovated and turned into a popular movie house only to be expanded later into a three-screen theater. But, over the years its beauty and usefulness turned frail and unsightly and didn’t reflect the vision many had for the area.
In 2002 the local community decided that the theatre had potential, and a charitable non-profit organization – the Newport Performing Arts Center – was formed, with the purchase of the deteriorating building to follow.
Much has been accomplished during phase one and phase two of the restoration project , With another $6 million needed to complete the endeavor, its target date for completion is quickly approaching.
With all hands on deck, and a focus to reach the financial goals necessary to meet obligations to rebuild the Opera House, never has there been a more important time for public involvement.
In a press release, Vareika said, ” I realized how old the building was and that it was a national treasure [and] in danger of being lost…it was historic…these [old] buildings are for bring economic, community activity, tourism, and educational opportunities to the communities they serve.”
Much has been accomplished since demolition began. Structural supports, rebuilt walls, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC have all been installed; yest, there is much more to be done.
Playing a key role in keeping the ball rolling to meet a deadline for 2018 is Construction Superintendent Bob Murgo, of Farrar & Associates. When asked about his view of the job, he responded, “I have a lot of pride in this project. The renovation is challenging with the style of the building, and its historical significance is definitely a key factor in the pacing of this restoration.”
Attention to detail is necessary when doing preservation work. When possible, original doors, moldings, windows, and architectural elements are saved and reused. Even walls are being salvaged wherever possible so that the group may receive historic preservation tax credits. The same holds true for the exterior; few who pass the newly complete facade of the building will realize that each brick has been replaced and restored individually.
Work remaining on the Opera House includes the grand staircase, dressing rooms, seating, and every other elements that will bring comfort and awe to both patrons and performers.
Executive director of the organization, Brenda Nienhouse thoughtfully explains what the future holds for the Newport Opera House upon its completion this year. “We look forward to serving as a premier venue for Newport…we aim to open for 2018 and look forward to showcasing world-class performing arts year-round – theater, dance, music, classical, jazz, [and] events – as this jewel-box gem of historic Newport shines bright again.”
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