From Fortress To Gathering Place — Is Huntington Renovation A Game Changer For Boston Theater?

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The Huntington Avenue Theatre in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Huntington Avenue Theatre in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

There is widespread support for a proposal to reconstruct Boston's Huntington Avenue Theatre in the next three years. The renovation is planned as not just a physical transformation, but a philosophical one as well, affirming what a theater should be and whom it should serve.

On a sunny, breezy day, Huntington Theatre Company marketing director Temple Gill stands outside the theater. She lifts her eyebrows, widens her eyes and smiles as she explains how the theater will soon change. "This, if you can imagine it, will be a beautiful, beautiful glass wall," she says as she points at what's currently a ramp leading to the theater's doors.

The changes that Gill looks forward to go beyond the aesthetic. The deal with QMG Huntington, the new owners of the complex that will house the theater, requires the Huntington to raise up to $70 million to restore the current theater. The developer's plan also includes a 32-story high-rise apartment on top of the building connected to the theater, for a total cost of more than $200 million. QMG will add a modern lobby and 14,000 square feet of space, which will include a cafe, expanding into the building next door.

"That will make it not a palace of performance but more of a community center," says Julie Hennrikus, the executive director of StageSource, an organization that advocates for and works with Boston theater groups. Hennrikus hopes the Huntington expansion will also benefit smaller and fringe theater companies without a physical home, who rely on people's living rooms or makeshift performance spaces. The lack of space restricts who is able to make art, she says.

A rendering of the plans for the building adjacent to the Huntington's space. (Courtesy of BLDUP and Stantec)
A rendering of the plans for the building adjacent to the Huntington's space. (Courtesy of BLDUP and Stantec)

Many at the theater, and around the city, feared that the Huntington would lose its home after Boston University announced in 2015 that it was selling the building and ending its longtime relationship with the theater. "It's easy now to say that 'Oh we knew everything was going to be fine,' " says Gill. "But we really didn't. It was a nerve-racking time, but thankfully the mayor and his team, to whom we're so grateful, stepped in." Mayor Marty Walsh worked with the new owners of the building, QMG Huntington, on a plan that would keep the Huntington in its place.

The theater, built in 1925 as America's first civic playhouse, is stately. The hefty brown brick and white pillars on the front of the building make it look a bit like a fortress, beautifully built but not necessarily inviting. And on most days you can't proceed past the box office without a ticket. Theatergoers want a gathering place, not a fortress, says Michael Maso, the Huntington's managing director. "We really do think of it as a living room for the neighborhood."

Huntington Avenue, which has also been called Boston's Avenue of the Arts, has been in the midst of a physical and cultural transformation in recent years, with new buildings at Northeastern University, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston's Art of the Americas wing and now, the Huntington's development proposal.

Pedestrians walk along Huntington Avenue in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Pedestrians walk along Huntington Avenue in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Huntington already provides spaces at a subsidized cost to smaller theater groups at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End, which is also where the theater's second stage is. The ambitious new plans for the Huntington mainstage will take these efforts to a new level, says Maso. "This is a program that is going to change the cultural life of Boston in the way that very few opportunities can do."

The Boston planning and development agency, which must review and approve the building proposal, will hold community hearings in the next few weeks to gauge support for the plan.

This segment aired on July 10, 2017.


Maria Garcia Managing Editor
Maria Garcia was WBUR's Managing Editor and the creator of "Anything for Selena."



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