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Theater: A dramatic makeover for the Stephen Foster Memorial

With a $2 million renovation, Pitt updates the theater that commemorates America's first professional composer

Sunday, March 30, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

It is a striking bit of serendipity that on the all-American day that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died -- July 4, 1826 -- Stephen Collins Foster, the first authentically American composer, was born in a little frame house in Lawrenceville that came to be known as the White Cottage.

Re-creating the theater in the Stephen Foster Memorial gives Buck Favorini, chairman of the University of Pittsburgh Theatre Arts Department, the technical improvements needed to create productions he once only dreamed about, such as the big musical Pitt plans for 2004. In addition to the Charity Randall and Henry Heymann theaters, the Stephen Foster Memorial houses memorabilia honoring its namesake. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Related Coverage
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with 'Much Ado'

Foster's inspiration came from disparate sources, including slave songs, black-face minstrel songs and the African-American dialect he heard while working on the Cincinnati wharf as a clerk for his brother's steamboat company. He wrote 189 songs in his short, troubled life, and while some of his early minstrel lyrics have been criticized as racist, he derided what he called the "trashy and really offensive words" of that genre and sought to reform it.

Certainly in the 19th century, Foster's melodic, sentimental ballads captured the spirit of place and struck a chord in the heart of every man and woman who ever longed for home or a lost love.

Serenading college boys sang them in front of the Greencastle, Ind., home of young Josiah Kirby Lilly's grandparents in the 1870s, not long after Foster's death at age 37 in 1864. Then and there, Foster became Lilly's favorite composer for life.

In 1930, tapping his pharmaceuticals fortune, Lilly began collecting early and contemporary editions of Foster's music, as well as his original manuscripts, letters, furniture, instruments and all things Foster, housing them in a stone cottage in suburban Indianapolis that he called Foster Hall.

Memorializing Foster was in the air. In 1934, Henry Ford had the White Cottage, now dilapidated and devoid of paint, taken apart and moved to Greenfield Village, where he reassembled it and painted it sparkling white -- only to discover he had the wrong cottage. The Foster birthplace, which had been used as a wing of steelmaker Andrew Kloman's 1860s brick house, had been torn down in 1865 and replaced with a brick addition.

No matter; another Foster memorial was in the works.

In 1927, the Tuesday Musical Club, founded in 1889 by affluent female musicians, and University of Pittsburgh Chancellor John Bowman agreed to collaborate on a performance hall dedicated to Foster that would house the club's recitals. Bowman donated land adjacent to where the foundation for the Cathedral of Learning was being laid, but nothing much happened until he learned of Lilly's collection in 1932. After Lilly pledged more than 10,000 Foster items, fund-raising began in earnest, with almost half the $550,000 cost ($6.9 million in 2003 dollars) coming from Lilly and his son, Eli.

Philadelphian Charles Klauder, architect of the soaring Cathedral, designed the theater and a small shrine to Foster with the same flair for interior drama he showed in the Cathedral's Commons. Entrance to the shrine is from the theater's lobby and through a low, darkened hall, which opens into the airy, 12-sided pavilion that displays copies of Foster's sheet music in and around Gothic-arched alcoves.

Foster's songs gently float through the air in this crisply carved chapel-in-the-round, illuminated by pairs of lancet windows with stained glass medallions by the masterful Charles Connick, illustrating "Beautiful Dreamer" and other Foster songs between rock-solid walls of Indiana limestone.

From dream to reality

"The idea was to respect the integrity of the architecture," says Hank Colker, casting a respectful gaze in the direction of one of the limestone walls in the memorial's foyer.

Two years ago, Colker and Tom Wiley of Pittsburgh's WTW Architects were charged with designing a $2 million renovation of the Stephen Foster Memorial that would provide the public a more enjoyable theater-going experience and give theater arts students a state-of-the-art facility in which to learn acting, directing, scenic design and other aspects of stage production. Most important, WTW was asked to make the building, which a theater consultant had found riddled with code violations and other hazards, safe for habitation.

The foyer, which serves as the theater's lobby, now houses two new pieces of furniture inspired by the memorial's Gothic arches -- an octagonal upholstered banquette to the left and a ticket and concession stand to the right. The banquette's seats enclose arched cabinets showcasing playbills for future productions along with college and career memorabilia associated with Gene Kelly's youngest brother, Fred. Both Kellys were Pitt graduates, and it was Fred who taught Gene (and many others) to dance. Underwritten by Fred's family, the display honors his achievements as an influential choreographer who later became a pioneering television producer and director.

In addition to the Charity Randall and Henry Heymann theaters, the Stephen Foster Memorial houses memorabilia honoring its namesake. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Both the banquette and concession/ticket stand were designed by Pittsburgh architect Michael Chirigos, who also introduced a new wrought iron ring (or wheel) chandelier to the lobby, now flanked by two original, rectangular chandeliers by master metalworker Samuel Yellin of Philadelphia.

In the auditorium, the theater's original plush, deep red seats have been reupholstered, their wrought iron frames and oak arms refinished and their number reduced -- from 572 to 478, including the addition of 24 new freestanding balcony seats. Other auditorium improvements include new carpeting and new lighting, which better defines the vaulted stone ceiling once lost to darkness. The original chandelier, long the auditorium's only illumination, has been restored.

Behind the scenes

Many other improvements won't be evident until the curtain rises Wednesday on "Much Ado About Nothing," the Pitt Repertory Theatre's first production in the refurbished hall. A new, bigger control booth, computer-controlled lighting and new surround-sound equipment will support more professional productions and training.

"You can send a locomotive through here, and you'd think it's going right around," said Buck Favorini, chairman of the University of Pittsburgh Theater Arts Department. "If we ever do 'King Lear,' people will be reaching for their umbrellas."

On stage, the overhead grid has been modernized and strengthened, and the old 13-line rigging system has been replaced with 35 lines. A new actors' restroom with access for the disabled at the rear of the stage will double as a quick-change room. The forestage, which now thrusts an additional 3 feet into the house, was rebuilt to accommodate ramps, the orchestra pit, traps and understage storage.

Much of the renovation will never be seen by audiences, including upgrades to the electrical and mechanical systems and the installation of a sprinkler system -- all made more challenging by the limestone walls no one wanted to deface. Where seamless access couldn't be gained, additions are camouflaged.

Downstairs, the dressing room area has been reconfigured to accommodate three "star" dressing rooms and men's and women's showers. Three years ago, the memorial's social room, which hosted USO dances during World War II, became the 153-seat Henry Heymann Theatre, honoring the school's longtime scenic designer, now professor emeritus and the theater's lead donor. Another basement room serves as headquarters for the still-active Tuesday Musical Club.

Through donations from the Charity Randall Foundation, the main theater has been renamed the Charity Randall Theatre, remembering Pitt graduate and businessman Robert Randall's sister. The foundation was established in 1977 to support her interest in the arts after her death in a car accident.

Yet to come are exterior banners, architectural lighting and, occasionally, slide projections on the facade, all designed to call attention to the memorial and to theater productions.

The Foster shrine itself was untouched, save for the introduction of unobtrusive sprinkler heads for a dry-pipe system that will activate only in the event of a fire -- another example of the sensitivity and deference shown to this historic structure by all involved in its renovation.


Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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