The Huntington Theatre Company, whose presence on Huntington Avenue was in question a couple of years ago, will be getting a dramatic face-lift that will open the space up to the public and the arts community. Instead of the staid brick building that now houses the mainstage, a 32-story complex with a glass façade will be built across from Symphony Hall, with the Huntington occupying parts of the first two floors.
The proposed plans for the buildings were announced Monday by QMG Huntington LLC, which bought 252, 258 and 264 Huntington Ave., from Boston University in May of 2016. The developers filed papers with the city of Boston Monday and now await approval.
The theater will stay where it is, but the entrance will be to the left, featuring a gathering space with a café that is open to the public during the day. The second-floor space, adjacent to the balcony, will also look out onto Huntington Avenue and can be used as a space for lectures, concerts and community events for up to 150 people. There’ll also be a bar and, yes, added restrooms.
“We're going to have the best of both worlds with these new spaces,” said the Huntington's managing director Michael Maso. “We're going to have totally modern audience facilities with audience amenities such as food service and bar service. But we will also have, in the lobbies, space for new smaller kinds of performance opportunities. So we'll have these beautiful modern public spaces that audiences desire but we will have them linked to a restoration of the historic theater in a way that honors the architectural tradition of that space.”
Maso noted how theaters outside Boston, like New York’s Public Theater, serve a larger clientele than just theater patrons, and how the Huntington intends to follow suit. “The Public is one of the great models,” he said, “in maintaining the animation of the space all day long. With the Calderwood [the company’s smaller second space] we wanted the theaters to interact in the way that the Public’s do, but we also looked at models like the smaller London theaters that are in neighborhoods, like the Almeida in Islington, that are alive with people spending time in them, where you can see actors looking at scripts while people are coming in to have a light meal or a cup of coffee … How do we use those examples in ways that bring the neighborhood together?”
“Community groups will have a meeting space,” Maso added, “and the theater will be used all day long, just as the Calderwood is. This is another hub for the neighborhood, a living room for Huntington Avenue. What we don’t want is a space that is used only for intermissions of plays.”
The investors plan a 350- to 420-unit residential tower. There will also be retail stores on the first and second floors of the complex. When BU announced the sale there was no guarantee that the Huntington would be able to remain where it is, but the mayor’s office helped negotiate a deal with the developers headed by John Matteson for the theater to remain where it’s been.
What had been the BU Theatre was built in 1925 and the Huntington was formed and took up residence in 1982. If all goes according to plan, the Huntington will open its first production in the new space in late 2019 or early 2020, after spending 12 to 15 months in different venues while the new buildings are built and the theater restored.