Theater renovation project showcases best of 1930s design with modern productions

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District
Story by Edward Rivera

Date: 07.30.2013
Posted: 07.30.2013 16:12
News ID: 111077
Theater renovation project showcases best of 1930s design with modern productions

FORT WORTH, Texas - The popular architectural style of the south and southwest during the 1930s continues to capture the eyes of Joint Base San Antonio - Fort Sam Houston personnel and visitors today.

Seventy-seven years ago, the U.S. Army’s desire to maintain a common architectural feel within their various regions, was persuaded by San Antonio architect, Atlee B. Ayres, to adopt the ornate Spanish Colonial Revival style with deep local roots for the post’s new theater.

From 1935 the 1,104-seat theater was the main projection house on post until 1972 when the Evans Theater took its place. Although the former theater hosted the U.S. Army Soldier Show and held various training functions for the Fort Sam Houston community for several years after that, it had to be closed due to severe deterioration.

The building stood idle for several decades, waiting for the next act of its story to be written. And written into the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act, the 14,692 square foot building was repurposed and scheduled to be renovated. The revitalization project had a two-fold mission; restore the deteriorated 1935 historic theater and expand the facility to accommodate the Army’s Installation Management Command’s, Army Entertainment Division and provide the future home of the U.S. Army Soldier Show.

Like many projects, this one had several challenges to overcome which included time, demolition and new construction, renovation and restoration, becoming Americans with Disabilities Act compliant and as with many projects, a condensed timeline. But, the Fort Worth District was ready for the challenges and put together a project delivery team to tackle them.

“New construction is a challenge, renovation construction is a challenge and restoration construction is a challenge. The theater project had all of those components. Our team looked forward to working on the project every day,” said Daniel de Robles, San Antonio Area Office, resident engineer.

One major challenge faced by the PDT was tying the new addition that houses a dance studio, wardrobe rooms, dressing rooms, recording studio, conference rooms, and office space into the existing structure. The completed facility serves as the main planning, training, and execution site for the AED.

“Historic preservation dictates that additions to historic facilities should not confuse history,” said Stephen Atkinson, chief, Army Air Force Program Section. “So, the architecture of the new portion had to blend in, but differ from the original exterior.”

Additionally, due to strict requirements in the geotechnical report, the foundation of the addition also had to be considerably different.

“The existing theater sat on a pier and beam foundation with shallow piers of less than 30 feet. The new addition required 60-foot deep piers, creating a problem of potential movement between the two foundations,” said Atkinson.

According to Atkinson, the fix was to design and add an expansion allowing independent movement. This expansion joint was incorporated into the new stage by creating a slip joint in the stage floor that would not be noticeable from the audience.

Another major hurdle for the project involved the complexity of all the audio and lighting components of a state-of-the-art performance venue. Sound engineers had to calibrate a myriad of speakers in the auditorium. The same effort was needed in the sound and recording studio in the new addition. The stage and auditorium also required significant amounts of lights and rigging, most of which had to be installed in the 90-foot high fly tower.

R. J. Holley, former program manager for IMCOM HQ and BRAC Facilities said the theater is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver facility with all of the modern necessities of a live performance theater merged tastefully and artfully with the character and charm of a 1935 Army theater.

“As neat as all the new construction and state-of-the-art sound and lighting features added to the theater were, I think the best part was bringing the historic portions back to life,” said de Robles.

In order to maintain the theater’s historic features and ensure current ADA, safety code and force protection requirements were met, the PDT had to get creative. Fire alarms and sprinklers were integrated into the walls so as not to distract from the architectural details. The interior lobbies, restrooms, balcony, vestibule, and auditorium all had intricate historical features to restore.

A restoration architectural painting subcontractor was commissioned to restore the concrete ceiling and beams on the first and second floor lobbies that were originally painted with detailed stenciling that had faded and chipped over the decades. The old peeling seal coat was removed without damaging the original paint, and then was hand painted by a team of artists on scaffolding. The same artists meticulously recreated the ornamental designs around the existing auditorium and vestibule walls and ceiling.

The original light fixtures and brass railings could not be replicated, so they were carefully removed and sent out for restoration. Samples of the old carpet were removed, cleaned, and provided to a carpet manufacturer to fabricate the carpet for the lobby and auditorium.

The theater exterior also had historic features. The main hand-carved wood doors and the old ticket booth framed with wood spindles and glass windows were carefully reconditioned.

“The Theater project was one of those once in a lifetime opportunities,” said de Robles. “When reflecting with my team, we talked about how projects like that are ones we'll be able to look back on, share with our grandkids, and proudly tell them, "I helped build that!”

The PDT had to maintain maximum flexibility during the last three months of construction in order to accommodate the several scheduled events tied to IMCOM Headquarters' and AED's mission requirements. The first planned events included farewell and welcoming town hall meetings by the outgoing and incoming IMCOM commanding generals, as well as Operation Rising Star, the Army version of "American Idol." Focus was shifted to completing the stage, auditorium, and historical lobby areas in order for the show to go on.

“The most rewarding part for me was working with a group that understood what we were trying to accomplish, building not just a facility for the Army Entertainment Division, but the "crown jewel" of the new IMCOM campus,” said R.J. Holley. “From the RFP team, to the Corps of Engineers, to the contractor, everyone shared the vision of the IMCOM customer and worked hard to make it a reality.”

The Resident Office, San Antonio Area Office Technical Branch, and Civil Engineer Squadron dedicated extra resources. The contractor worked 12-hour days from October 2011 through December 2011 to complete installation of the complex theatrical lighting, state of art sound system, and stage rigging.

“With the first scheduled event fast approaching, careful coordination had to be maintained between the AED’s requirement to construct scenic background props while the contractors continued their installation in the immediate vicinity,” said Atkinson. “The replica carpet was being laid in the auditorium, stage flooring was being painted, and sound equipment was being tested mere hours before the outgoing IMCOM commander gave his farewell speech.”

A few weeks later, Fort Sam Houston hosted Operation Rising Star, an event broadcast live around the globe.

“Due to the team’s close coordination with the users, user representatives, base civil engineering staff as well as their contractor team members, the projects were completed well within budget and within the time constraints mandated by legislation,” said Col. Charles H. Klinge, commander, Fort Worth District. “The efforts of this team produced not only a high level of quality construction but also helped usher in a new process by which teams should function in the future.”

De Robles said successfully completing a project that provides such an outstanding venue for our troops is satisfying enough. Every member of the PDT would tell you they were just happy doing their job. But being recognized as the PDT of the Year (for 2012) is special.

“The award is a reflection of our collective efforts and acknowledgment of the tremendous teamwork it took to build strong," said de Robles.