Opera House takes big step forward

Newport Daily News Steel Install

(Newport Daily News, By Sean Flynn)

Four steel columns, each more than 35 feet long and weighing 5 tons, were inserted Monday into the Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center now under construction at Washington Square.

An 80-foot-high crane inserted the steel columns vertically onto new piers where they were secured with thick anchor bolts. The concrete piers extend 6 feet underground.

The steel columns will support two 55-foot-long steel horizontal beams that will hold up the new mansard roof, glassed-in atrium and roof garden that will be constructed on the fourth floor.

Those steel crossbeams tentatively will be installed next week, said Chuck Berlinghof, owner’s representative for the Opera House board. He is a former regional manager for Gilbane Building Co. based in Providence, but he came out of retirement to oversee this job.

The roof has to be opened up to lay the crossbeams and some asbestos has to be removed from the old roof before that happens, so bad weather could delay the work, Berlinghof said.

The new beams will support a metal roof with a concrete layer, he said. Decorative rooftop flooring, such as tiles, will go on top of that substructure.

“The old timber roof is not in good condition,” Berlinghof said. “It’s 148 years old.”

Farrar Associates Inc. of Newport, owned by James Farrar, is the general contractor for the $15 million project that is expected to be completed by the late spring or early summer of 2018.

Touro Street along Washington Square was closed for the lifting of the steel columns, and many Opera House board members, building committee members and spectators gathered to watch.

Constructed in 1867, the Opera House Theater is among the 10 oldest surviving opera houses in the country and is the oldest surviving theater building in Rhode Island.

With the emergence of movies in the 1920s, the Opera House entered a new era as a movie theater and was reconstructed in 1929. Massive steel beams were installed in the building that year and are now visible since much of the interior has been stripped down.

The new steel framing, combined with the existing steel beams, will allow an open design for the new 700-seat theater that is being designed by architect Mohammad Farzan. He is working with Christopher Bulkley, a consultant from New York City who specializes in theater design.

This is a project that has been long in the making.

Among the board members watching the work on Monday was Dominique Alfandre, executive director of the Island Moving Co., who said she and others began planning in 1999 for revitalization of the Opera House and its transformation into a new performing arts center. The nonprofit Newport Performing Arts Center bought the building in 2001.

“It’s just amazing,” Alfandre said. “These steel beams had to be designed, produced, packed onto a truck and now they are here. The design is starting to happen. It’s very exciting.”

Since the purchase of the building, the board has been working to bring together enough financing to undertake the project. The project received a $4.2 million grant from the state cultural facilities bond approved by the voters in 2014, and $1.8 million in federal tax credits. The remaining funding will come from donations by foundations, corporations and individuals.

John Shehan, chairman of the building committee, highlighted on Monday donations that have been made by the Alletta Morris McBean Charitable Trust, the leading private donor to the project. Early donations by the trust helped kick-start the project and most recently the trust donated $750,000 to the ongoing capital campaign.

“They’ve been fabulous,” Shehan said.

Liz Drayton, a former board member now helping with patron relations, and Ivan Colon, who is handling corporate and business development for the board, took visitors through the building during a construction break on Monday.

A fire that began on Thames Street in November 1955 damaged the adjacent Perry House hotel and the fourth floor of the Opera House. The hotel was demolished in 1957 as a result of the fire, and the top floor of the Opera House was removed.

Now, that top floor is being recreated in a new form.

Tanya Kelley, the principal of Placestudio Landscape Design of this city, was present. She is designing the planned roof garden.

Before the garden is opened, though, there are almost 1½ years of construction work ahead.

“After the structural work is completed, there are a lot of time-consuming tasks such as putting in all the decorative plaster,” Berlinghof said.

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