Playhouse concerns and suggestions
Regarding the Arquitectonica Playhouse concept design, I wanted to provide you with my professional perspective. I have had the opportunity to listen to Jorge Hernandez and Bernardo Fort Brescia present their Historical Assessment Report and alternative design proposals and I have reviewed both the report and design drawings in detail.
I find Mr. Hernandez’s report lacking and seriously flawed, which have led to inappropriate conclusions and a most unfortunate design direction.
I take little issue with Hernandez’s description of the building’s exterior façade nor with his recommendations for its restoration. However, his suggestion that there is somehow an architectural connection of the Kiehnel façade to the interior of John Eberson’s Olympia Theater or other similar atmospheric theaters seems completely implausible.
It is his description of the playhouse interior and his ultimate recommendation that I find most troubling. He terms Kiehnel’s barrel vaulted hall as austere and fails to provide the reader with any mention or photographs of the existing original plaster proscenium arch, shown here. Restored and decoratively painted to its original historic colors, this proscenium would without a doubt rival the flamboyance of Eberson’s Olympia proscenium. He fails to mention that behind this ornate proscenium sits a stage house with a full fly loft. This was not a theater designed exclusively for film, but rather much like Eberson’s Olympia as a vaudeville theater during the period of transition from vaudeville and silent movies to “talkies”. He fails to mention that every great theatrical moment that ever occurred at the Coconut Grove Playhouse occurred on this stage was viewed through Kiehnel’s magnificent proscenium arch.
He traces Alfred Browning Parker’s historically insensitive 1955 – 1956 renovations as if they had the same significance as Kiehnel’s original work. They did not. They never even came close. Ultimately, he concludes that the auditorium has lost its integrity and has had too many changes over time to be individually listed on the National Register. This is simply wrong. A properly restored Coconut Grove Playhouse will be a welcome addition to the National Register. There is no question that the Engle and Parker compromised the integrity of Kiehnel’s design, just as Maurice Lapidus’ renovations compromised the integrity of both the Olympia and Colony Theaters. In this case, Parker’s insensitivities can and should simply be undone as Lapidus’ were undone in both the Olympia and Colony theater historic restorations. Kiehnel’s hand has not been “eradicated” as Hernandez states. In addition to the existing ornate proscenium arch, the original twisted columns, cornice moldings and low relief plaster ornamentation are simply covered by layers of historically insensitive renovation. Striping those layers away will once again reveal Kiehnel’s genius. Moreover, any restoration or replication would not be conjecture as Hernandez also states because it would be aided by physical evidence and original historic photographs.
A restored playhouse could easily accommodate the needs of a 700 seat dramatic theater with theatrical support spaces added to the north. One needs look no further than the historic theaters of Broadway to see some of the greatest theater in America being performed in some of the greatest historic theaters in America. To proceed with this Arquitectonica plan would destroy the collective memory of both the architectural genius that was Kiehnel and the theatrical genius of all of the famous directors, playwrights and actors whose work once graced the stage of the playhouse.
Flawed by its initial premise, Arquitectonica’s plan does illustrate that the site can easily accommodate both the 300 seat theater desired by Gables Stage and a restored 700 seat Coconut Grove Playhouse. Only together can Miami audiences experience the quality of real regional theater. A relocated Gables Stage into new facilities alone will not significantly enhance Miami’s theater scene. Two theaters along with a small studio theater and teaching facilities will not only have a substantial impact on Miami’s theater scene, but will also have a significant economic impact on the Coconut Grove business community. They are shareholders as well.
In my view, to repeat the historic insensitivity of the past by demolishing the work of Kiehnel, the true Master Architect, and substituting the work of Arquitectonica would be a preservation travesty when the opportunity exists to successfully integrate the two theaters into a real regional theater with real impact.
Richard J. Heisenbottle, FAIA
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