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The Huntington Theatre Company will stay right where it is.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh formally announced Thursday that the Huntington has reached an agreement with the private developer who purchased the property earlier this year, and will retain control of the BU Theatre, where it has staged productions since the company's founding in 1982.
The future of the Huntington's home, built in 1925, was thrown into doubt last year when BU announced its intention to sell the theater and two adjacent buildings.
"The bottom line is that the Huntington is here to stay, on Huntington Ave., where it belongs," Walsh said at an announcement event at the theater Thursday afternoon, to much applause from an audience of 200-plus Huntington supporters and friends.
The development is an encouraging one for Boston’s theater community, which was roiled last autumn by news of BU’s plans to sell this property as well as the uncertainty over the future of the Colonial Theatre. The Colonial's owner, Emerson College, was considering re-purposing the historic venue. Emerson has since announced its plans to preserve the theater, though it’s not known when any planned renovations will occur or live performances there will resume.
BU announced in October its intention to sell the property, at which time the Huntington acknowledged it had already made an offer to buy. However, that proved unsuccessful when the parties could not come to an agreement on the sale price. The Huntington then shifted its strategy to partnering with a private developer who might be enticed by the potential for tax breaks or a more lenient permitting process due to the affiliation with a nonprofit. But once a group led by local developer John Matteson emerged as frontrunners to buy the property, the depth of the Huntington’s involvement in the process was not publicly clear. Walsh said, though, that meetings between the City of Boston, the Huntington, and the Matteson group began “a day or two” after the $25 million sale was complete.
BU had previously been making the facility — which includes the 890-seat BU Theatre and two adjacent buildings housing production and rehearsal facilities, plus a smaller black-box theater for university productions –- available to the Huntington rent-free. But BU’s active drama program shared access to the production facilities with the Huntington
“[We’re] in control of our destiny. We’re in control of the future of this property and of our destiny and we have the ability to ensure that this remains a cultural mecca for generations to come,” Michael Maso, the Huntington's managing director, said in an interview after the announcement.
The university is moving its in-house theater operations to a new facility it plans to build on Commonwealth Avenue and open in fall 2017.
Maso has previously said the organization expects to spend between $40 and $60 million on new facilities and theater renovations. On Thursday, he cited $60-70 million as the beginning of a "baseline conversation" about the project expense, which will encompass new theater amenities, including food and drink service.
Some of the space presently occupied by theatrical production facilities will be the home of the mixed-use development planned for the site. The Huntington will seek new space for those functions at another location, but will construct new rehearsal studios adjacent to the BU Theatre.
The project will be the centerpiece of the Huntington's first capital campaign since it raised $24 million to build the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, which opened in 2004.
Artistic director Peter DuBois said the intent is to create a patron experience more in line with what’s offered in the London theater, with a social space with food and drink available. He also said that the Huntington’s exclusive control over the theater and its support facilities, without competition from BU’s theater program, will create more flexibility to accommodate the schedules of high-profile artists.
“I’m thrilled that we actually now will have control over the theater year round, because we then can schedule in a much more flexible way,” he said. “We can work around writers’ schedules, we can work around actors’ schedules, we can work around directors’ schedules. For example, we’ve got a show [coming up] where one key artist couldn’t do it because of a two-week overlap, because we don’t have control of the schedule. [Changing that] is one of the really exciting things.”