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O'Reilly Theater: Another diamond in the District

Cultural Trust's Carol Brown steered circuitous route to O'Reilly Theater

Sunday, December 05, 1999

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

Like the twisting plot of any good play, the plans for the O'Reilly Theater took many unexpected turns as the venue evolved from a clause in a strategic plan into the illustrious crown of Downtown's cultural district.

When it began Act I of its theater project a decade ago, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of the district, anticipated that the theater would feature a proscenium stage, 800 seats and be located on the ground floor of an office building.

  Before mortar and stone came the leadership of Carol Brown, shown here inside the new $20-million O'Reilly Theater. (Bill Wade - Post-Gazette)

But in this, the final act, the new home of the Pittsburgh Public Theater has a thrust stage, 650 seats and is a free-standing structure with entrances off the sidewalk.

The Trust didn't know its theater would end up this way. Nor could it have expected that the opening of the theater would cap 15 years in which it would turn abandoned buildings, parking lots and -- in the case of those old pornographic stores -- unsavory establishments into the cultural gems and amenities found in the district today.

"The major building blocks of the district are in place," Carol Brown, the Trust's president, said recently as she reflected on the O'Reilly's development. "And that's what we feel good about now as we celebrate our 15th anniversary."

Indeed, now that the theater is ready for its public (invitation-only) unveiling Thursday, the Trust has completed nearly everything it set out to do in 1989 when it created its 10-year strategic plan for the 14 blocks between Stanwix and Tenth streets on the Golden Triangle's northern swath.

Due to market constraints, the Trust was not able to build an office tower on Penn Avenue that was originally to house the theater. And for space reasons it could not establish a first-run movie theater at Seventh Street and Fort Duquesne Boulevard.

But there are more than enough successes to trumpet: the renovated Byham and Benedum theaters; the Allegheny Riverfront Park (its upper level has yet to be completed); the soon-to-open Katz Plaza, with its tall fountain and eye-catching benches; the Harris Theater, which shows independent films through Pittsburgh Filmmakers; and the Wood Street Galleries. (Plans to locate a cabaret theater, parking garage and arts information center between the theater and the plaza remain in flux as the Trust waits to see how much state money it might receive for the project.)

  Cultural Trust Timeline

In all, the Trust has certainly fulfilled the wish of Henry John "Jack" Heinz II, former chair of the H.J. Heinz Co., that Heinz Hall, which he helped renovate for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the late 1960s, be surrounded by institutions of equal cultural merit.

The Trust is now discussing follow-up strategies. But whatever emerges from those discussions will come to fruition without Brown at the helm. She is leaving the Trust late next year after leading it and influencing its ethos for 13 of the 15 years it has existed. The O'Reilly, therefore, is her swan song.

One aspect of the theater reflects Brown well -- its architectural integrity and quality. Brown says she is passionate about design and the visual arts, and that interest led her to make sure the projects she oversaw were approved by teams of design experts and conceived by artists at the top of their fields.

Hence the choice of artist Ann Hamilton (whose work is part of Carnegie International 1999-2000) to design the riverfront park; sculptor Louise Bourgeois and landscape architect Dan Kiley to oversee Katz Plaza; artist Robert Wilson and architect Richard Gluckman to create lighting displays that soon will dot the district; and architect Michael Graves to plan the O'Reilly.

In fact, a major reason the Trust chose Graves was because of his interest in fitting the theater into the architectural context of the cultural district.

Was design quality always a focus of the Trust's plans?

"It was for me," Brown says, adding that working with the design teams has been her favorite aspect of the job. "Jack Heinz was not alive when we formulated our strategic plan, but the Heinz family cares deeply about design quality."

The concept for the theater arose when the Trust began its long-range planning in 1989. The Stanley Theatre had already been renovated into the Benedum Center and the Trust had just bought the Fulton Theater, soon to become the Byham Theater. Brown says that at that point, some people in town wanted the Trust to shift its focus from new facilities to creating new amenities like parks and restaurants.

"But we also needed cultural planning," Brown says. "It was a struggle getting people to understand that that was an important component."

The Public by that time had been thinking of moving out of its North Side home at the Hazlett Theater, having always considered it temporary quarters. Brown says moving Downtown was a "collaborative" idea of the Trust and the theater company.

Bill Gardner, the Public's artistic director at the time, wanted an 800-seat proscenium theater -- quite a departure from the 457-seat thrust stage in the Hazlett -- in part so that he could create large-scale shows that could tour and stage shorter runs to attract bigger stars. The idea was to place the theater in an office building on the block of Penn where the theater now sits.

But after he was selected in 1992 as the theater's architect, Graves indicated he did not want the theater in an office building. The two projects were separated and, in the end, the office tower was never built, due to a soft real estate market.

"We felt very strongly that people should be able to enter [the theater] from the street," Brown says. "It seemed fallacious not to, given that we wanted to contribute to the animation Downtown."

Gardner died in April 1992, and when his successor, Eddie Gilbert, was brought in nine months later, things changed. Gilbert, who was chosen in part because of his experience overseeing the expansions of two theaters in Canada, wanted a thrust stage in the Public's new home. The Trust board had already been reconsidering the proposed 800-seat figure, but Gilbert's announced stage preference came unexpectedly, and set the project back about a year.

"I told him we'd stop work right away, because we were already fairly along in the process," Brown recalls.

Fund-raising had begun in 1993 when a major capital campaign by the Trust got under way. Eventually, all the $20.5 million needed to build the structure would be raised. "It was important for us to open the theater debt-free," Brown says.

The city and Allegheny County each provided $2.5 million, the state provided $7 million and the rest came from private sources, including past and current senior executives of the Heinz Co. and Chryss O'Reilly, wife of Anthony J.F. O'Reilly, then-Heinz Co. chairman. Chryss O'Reilly and the executives contributed an amount the Trust will not disclose to get the O'Reilly name on the theater in honor of his leadership of the Pittsburgh company.

The thrust stage plan moved forward. Gardner had always envisioned that the hall would be rented out to other groups, so provisions were made to enable the acoustics to be adjusted for concerts and to make the ground floor seats removable.

As with Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which rents the Harris from the Trust, it was arranged that the rent the Public Theater would pay the Trust for the O'Reilly would be based on the number of tickets sold.

"It gives them the capacity to grow and simultaneously protects them from any bad years they might have," Brown says.

It also was agreed that the theater company would pay for its utilities, while the Trust would pay maintenance costs on the building. The Trust plans to put the Public's rent money into a long-term maintenance account for the building's upkeep.

And what now for the Trust? The board is wrapping up a strategic plan for internal operations and will soon settle on broader goals for the next few years, goals which will largely determine Brown's successor.

Brown says the Trust is not planning any more land acquisitions because "our funding has run out." Over the past 15 years, the organization, which employs about 30 people at its Seventh Street offices, has raised $56 million in public funds for its projects, spurring $390 million in private funding and commercial investment.

Brown says the Trust is turning its attention to maintenance of the park and plaza, overseeing facade restoration, helping to spur more housing development in the district, and attracting restaurants and more places for young people.

"If we just build facilities and don't pay attention to the atmosphere around those facilities, we won't be helping the arts organizations," Brown said.

Would the Trust like to purchase more land?

"If doing so facilitates future plans, yes, but we don't have a specific building we're targeting," Brown says.

As she turns her attention to the possibility of teaching or doing consulting work, Brown is aware that after her departure the Trust and the district she helped build could take a different turn.

"I'm sure there will be things in the district I won't find attractive," she says, "or things that Jack Heinz might not have found attractive. But that's the way cities work."

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