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O'Reilly Theater: The theater is an elegant reflection of its architect -- Michael Graves

Sunday, December 05, 1999

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

Time will tell what the best seat in the house is at the O'Reilly Theater, and it probably will depend on the staging of the production.

  The front lobby of the O'Reilly Theater. (Bill Wade - Post-Gazette)

But surely one of the best places to stand is on the balcony overlooking the lobby, with its long view of Penn Avenue through a two-story, semi-circular wall of windows. Visiting the O'Reilly will make you feel good about being in the city, make you feel part of the city and part of the life of the street. And isn't that what going to the theater is all about, feeling alive and connected and engaged?

Until the first full production, it's impossible to know exactly how the O'Reilly will perform as a theater. But its social spaces -- the lobby and the balcony that overlooks it -- should serve it well. On the projecting, half-circle balcony adjacent to the bar, patrons may feel as if they have their own thrust stage from which to work the crowd or, drink in hand and dressed to the nines, simply catch the eye of that attractive other across the room.

    Calendar of Events

Several activities are tied to the opening of the O'Reilly Theater:

Frank McCourt, author of the acclaimed "Angela's Ashes," will serve as master of ceremonies when the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Pittsburgh Public Theater throw an opening night party at 7 p.m. Thursday. Among the dignitaries in attendance will be Chryss and Tony O'Reilly, Teresa Heinz, August Wilson and architect Michael Graves. A "surprise special guest" will entertain. Attendance is strictly by invitation only.

Wilson's "King Hedley II" begins preview performances on Saturday. The official opening of "King Hedley II" -- already sold out -- is Dec. 15.

A free "Holiday Open House," featuring entertainment and refreshments, is scheduled Dec. 18. Public Theater subscribers and donors will be given tours of the O'Reilly Theater from 10 a.m. to noon; the general public from noon to 2 p.m.

"New Economy Night" is scheduled Dec. 20, featuring pre-performance cocktails and hors d'ouevres at the Seventh Street Grille from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Call the box office for details: 412-316-1600.

Free First Night tours are scheduled from 4 to 7:30 p.m. (the last tour begins at 7) on Dec. 31.


The O'Reilly's aesthetic is pure Graves -- smooth, polished, pared-down classicism. It has produced not only a much better building than originally anticipated, but also a much different one. When the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust announced its plan for Theater Square in 1992, Graves' design included a theater and adjacent office building, plus a public plaza at Seventh Street and Penn Avenue and a garage on Seventh. The office building fell victim to a soft market and the theater went its own way, free of obligations to relate to the taller building.

For a small building (just four stories tall), the O'Reilly has a monumental presence on the street, holding its own against Penn Avenue's taller structures and drawing attention in a quiet, dignified way.

A great overhanging, copper-covered roof sweeps down, expressing on the exterior the barrel vault rehearsal hall that will double as a performance space and party room. The barrel vault is bracketed by rectangular walls clad in Kasota stone, a warm, ochre Minnesota limestone.

Michael Graves, architect of all things great and small, has given Pittsburgh an elegant building, robust in form and materials and refined in its details. It couldn't be more different from the industrial, rustic aesthetic of the Public's former home, the Hazlett Theater, and you can't help but wonder what psychological impact, if any, the new surroundings will have on actors, directors and set designers.

The Public is moving on up, but it's hard not to feel a certain nostalgia for the Hazlett's century-old environs, if not its butt-numbing, leg-crunching seats. Patrons will sit in luxurious comfort at the O'Reilly -- especially if they have tickets for the individual armchairs in the balconies (just don't expect cupholders for your drinks, there or anywhere else in the theater).

To the west is the narrow, two-story brick-faced portion of the theater, which houses the box office at the front of the building and offices for the Pittsburgh Public Theater, the primary tenant, behind. It's a connective element that continues the streetscape but allows the rest of the theater to stand on its own.

The barreling, almost half-drum form, seemingly stopped in mid-roll, is set over a smaller half-drum placed on its side -- the dark teal blue aluminum window wall of the lobby. Together they gather the visitor inside, where the architect has inserted another half-drum within the lobby -- the balcony, wrapped in a veneer of curly maple. Graves sees the drum-within-a-drum, which creates the semicircular two-story space, as prepping the audience for the horseshoe-shaped theater.

Designed with theater consultant Jules Fisher, the theater itself is a low-key space, from the curvaceous profiles of the balconies to the rectangular maple grid that frames maple veneer panels and teal-painted plaster. As in the lobby, the theater's wood is all curly maple, with the sensuous grain producing the primary decorative effect.

  Patrons probably won't see much of the theater's back wall when it's covered with sets and backdrops, but it illustrates one of the building's unifying themes: the rectangular grid. (Bill Wade - Post-Gazette)

Inside the theater, the second-floor balcony opens onto the lobby balcony, where the bar area will be backed by a Graves mural.

Up one more floor in the O'Reilly, the two-story barrel vault rehearsal hall is the theater's soaring space, painted a serene sky blue/gray. The vault is punctured by seven large windows that will further color the room with the natural light of any particular day.

Back down in the lobby, there's an axial view of Penn Avenue to the east, culminating in Liberty Center, through columns covered in Kasota stone, a material that Graves first used in Johnstown's Crown American building.

The arcade that begins with those columns will be continued in the garage's Kasota stone base, if and when it is built and if its estimated $19 million budget allows. Current plans call for construction of a first-floor cabaret theater inside.

Straight ahead and to the west, the view is of the side of Heinz Hall, where the Penn Avenue marquee was recently topped with unusually large and bold illuminated letters. Is Heinz Hall suffering an identity crisis as its welcomes its new neighbor, or just engaging in unabashed self-promotion? No matter; it's all part of the symphony of the street.

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