Renovation Ovation: Opera House Restoration Kicks Into High Gear

Brenda Nienhouse, executive director for the nonprofit Newport Opera House and Performing Arts Center, stands in the auditorium of the 1867 structure, which is undergoing an $18 million renovation and will seat 700 theatergoers when the project is completed next year. Currently, excavators are digging out the large orchestra pit in front of a massive proscenium arch that spans the stage, and Nienhouse says the nonprofit hopes to reclaim as much of the original stage’s wood as possible. On the second floor of the historic building, Nienhouse pointed to blueprints indicating that behind the façade of the restored mansard roof, theater patrons will be able to stroll the terraced rooftop garden and sample beverages from the indoor/outdoor bar area. “We’re so lucky because this theater is one of the 10 oldest in the country, and [the city of] Newport preserved it,” Nienhouse said.

In its glory days, the Newport Opera House bustled with crowds coming to see the theatrical productions, minstrel shows, burlesque performances, civic and community events at the iconic Touro Street theater. More recently, the space was used as a triplex movie theater. But next year, the Opera House will return to its former glory as the home of live theater, just in time for its 150th anniversary.

For the last 18 months, Farrar Associates Inc. of Newport, the general contractor for the $18 million project, has been removing drywall and 20th century infrastructure to unearth many of the historic features that are original to the 1867 structure, such as the soaring 50- foot proscenium arch, the decorative plaster wall columns, the arched windows and the vaulted ceilings.

Brenda Nienhouse, executive director of the nonprofit Newport Opera House and Performing Arts Center, which owns the property, said the theater was built as an amenity for the Perry House Hotel next door. In its heyday, projects produced by Oscar Hammerstein, George Cohen, Duke Ellington, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe appeared on its stage. In 1929, when the movie industry was blossoming, the opera house was turned into a movie theater. A handful of live shows still took place there, but eventually it was used solely for its big screen.

Newport Opera House Stage

The expanded stage taking form that will host world-class dance, music, theater, classical, jazz, comedy, family and youth programming, educational events, special events and more.

In 2000, a group of visionary Newport business leaders purchased the property with the idea that a live performance theater should once again serve the region as a cultural hub.

“At that point, the facade was restored and their vision began taking shape,” Nienhouse said. “This is one of the oldest theaters in the country. Once the restoration is complete, it’s going to be a 700- seat performing arts center with all kinds of world-class live performances year-round, from dance to theater to comedy to spoken word. Part of what we’re doing is extending the stage out so we can accommodate all art forms.”

The first phase of the project has included abatement in the building, taking down the old annex where the hotel was located and working on the infrastructure of the main theater. Workers are currently constructing a tunnel that will go underneath the stage. The foundation for a new annex will be laid later this summer or in the early fall.

To qualify for state and federal tax credits, many of the historical aspects of the theater are being preserved, Nienhouse said. Although there will be state-of-theart theatrical equipment, projection, and light and sound, the space will look much like it did when it was built, with many restored and remastered historical features.

Once restored, the main lobby will be on the second floor, near the entrance to the balcony. With large windows overlooking Washington Square, Nienhouse said the theater’s light will overflow and spill out onto the square.

“This place is going to have great energy,” she said. “It’s going to be a very special place to see amazing performances. All of the seats will be good seats.”

This postcard image shows the Newport Opera House before a 1955 fire destroyed the fourth floor and the building’s mansard roof. Opera House representatives expect the restoration, including a rebuilt façade of the original mansard roof, to be complete by early summer 2018.

Bob Ensign, communications and marketing director for the center, said it’s great to see a relic of a bygone era restored to what it once was.

“It’s really remarkable,” he said. “We’re taking a historic building and bringing in today’s theatrical amenities, and also including a beautiful rooftop garden and terrace, and an annex for community programs.”

On the third level, there will be ADA-compliant seating, along with an education space and three offices. A task force made up of local educators, artists and community members is currently in the process of determining how the space can meet the needs of the community.

The project has gained momentum in the last few months, Nienhouse said. As with any project involving a historic structure, there are surprises, but she said they are on track for completion in 2018. In addition to the state and federal tax credits, the nonprofit is receiving $4.2 million from the state’s cultural facilities bond.

“We’re still fundraising for the project, but we’re on track and are definitely moving forward,” she said. “We’re really kicking into high gear.”

Nienhouse, who has a background in restoring old theaters, moved to RI from Spokane, Washington, specifically to work on the restoration of the opera house.

“I’m so excited about this project because we can all see how much this place means to the community and how it’ll be an economic driver and cultural asset,” she said. “Newport is such an amazing cultural hub, and I really think this will add to the city’s resources. It’s going to be a gem once again.”

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