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A new exhibit explores the redesign of the New Hazlett Theater

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You could be excused, while on the North Side, for constantly ruminating about stars and planets. The former Buhl Planetarium, a monument to the skies, remains as part of the recently expanded Children's Museum, and the neighborhood's entire dynamic of decline and ascendance has the aura of an astrological phenomenon. Now the New Hazlett Theater has joined the act, with a comet-like rebirth.

An exhibition about the building's redesign process will be on display at the Garfield office of EDGE Studios, the architects of the recent renovation. It will open Fri., May 4, as part of the First Fridays on Penn Avenue "Unblurred" event.

What is now the New Hazlett Theater began auspiciously as the Music Hall portion of the Carnegie Library and Music Hall, opened in 1890 to designs by Smithmeyer and Pelz, architects of the Library of Congress. Despite some unsympathetic interior renovations in the 1970s, the building continued in use as the Pittsburgh Public Theater until 1999, when that institution moved to new facilities, Downtown. What to do with an empty venue?

Heinz Endowments grants led to studies by Dewey and Kaye consultants, under the leadership of the Children's Museum and The Andy Warhol Museum. No one arts organization would agree to move in alone, but data indicated that a gaggle of smaller groups would eagerly sign up to use the place. Indeed, under the executive directorship of Sarah Radelet, the theater is now booked months in advance, with, for example, Prime Stage Theatre's production of The Diary of Anne Frank running through May 6.

But no reopening could have happened without a $2 million-plus renovation. Changes to meet safety and ADA codes dominated the redesign, as did improvements to visitor circulation, dressing rooms and rigging for set pieces. One goal, says Radelet, was "on the production and performance side, to make [the theater] as professional as possible." The other, she adds, was to make it "warm and inviting for audiences."

In this latter role, a redesigned lobby asserts itself as a distinguished new public space. EDGE architects studied Moorish bathhouses in Andalusia as examples of how perforated screens could serve as dramatically lit enclosure. Their contemporary inclinations led the architects to create gently creased, slightly asymmetrical wall-and-ceiling planes, with wood veneer, enveloping the lobby space with differently sized round openings to admit light. As the project developed, they looked at 16th-century star charts as patterns for the openings.

They also collaborated with glass artists Kathleen Mulcahy and Ron Desmett, who had independently taken inspiration from celestial orbs, specifically Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem, "Slip of Comet." Mulcahy and Desmett concocted chandeliers with colored and swirling glass orbs mounted on curved steel tubes, as if planets against the starry background of EDGE's perforated screens. Einstein insisted that God does not play dice with the universe; Mulcahy and Desmett's gleeful glass spheres suggest that the game may in fact be marbles. No question that these creations are serious art. They just make it seem as though the Big Bang took place in a candy store.

And they blend well with the larger architectural scheme. EDGE's renovation has re-opened the lobby from its worst days of double-knit-era dropped ceilings to make it airy and expansive. At the center is a pleasantly angular information desk, soon to be a bar; the new stairway and balcony are designed for both circulation and viewing. "It's the stage before the stage," says principal Matt Fineout.

So why have an exhibition of a building that is so close by and that everyone should go to?

What people will see in EDGE's gallery goes far beyond design drawings and study models (though there are many of these). There are before-and-after photos of the space, and great process photos of the chandeliers being fabricated at the Pittsburgh Glass Center. All of these give an insight into the collaborative, hands-on nature of the process, supplemented by extensive quotes from many of the participants, including other organizations. Says EDGE principal Dutch MacDonald: "It's more about the collaboration among the client, artists and architects."

In a time when an expensive light-rail system is planned that that will bypass the cultural core of the North Side entirely, the constellation, as reimagined in lights and orbs, is instructive. Both in form and in process, it demonstrates that greater value comes from the system as a whole than from a single exclusive part.

Think of the overhead: the New Hazlett Theater's redesigned lobby. Photo courtesy of EDGE Studios.
  • Think of the overhead: the New Hazlett Theater's redesigned lobby. Photo courtesy of EDGE Studios.

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