Suspending more than disbelief

Plans for modernizing the Lyric Opera House include a 95-foot-tall metal stagehouse hung from steel masts high above the stage.

Architecture: Review

October 28, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

While the front of Baltimore's Lyric Opera House has been modernized in recent years, backstage it remains as cramped and antiquated as ever.

Architects have found ways to revamp the auditorium, lobbies and dressing rooms, but expanding the stage area poses design issues that have been particularly difficult to resolve:

How can owners deepen the stage without pushing the building onto Maryland Avenue? What's the best way to raise the roof so scenery can be stored out of sight? How can contractors minimize construction time so the theater isn't dark for a year or more?

Designers believe they have finally hit upon a solution that will enable theater operators to meet their objectives without shutting down for an extended period.

The result would be the most dramatic change to the historic theater since renovations began in the late 1970s: a 95-foot-tall metal stagehouse that will be visible for blocks.

It also will mean the disappearance of one of the last vestiges of the original 1894 building not already knocked down or obscured by new construction -- the masonry wall along Maryland Avenue.

One would normally want to be cautious about such a radical proposal for a venerable Baltimore landmark. But the Lyric, at 110 W. Mount Royal Ave., has been altered so much over the years that this change can't be any worse than what's been done to it already. A bold solution, if handled well, may be exactly what's needed to make it more exciting as a focal point for the Mount Royal cultural district.

Continuing the renovation

The nonprofit Lyric Foundation has invested more than $20 million since the 1970s so the 2,600-seat Lyric can function well as a setting for Broadway-style shows, opera productions and other theatrical events.

Directors still want to expand the backstage area to accommodate grand operas and large touring productions that won't fit today. They want to give the Lyric the same technical capabilities as the opera house at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and enough room to store scenery so that two operatic productions can be staged at the same time. They want to deepen the stage to 55 feet from 33 feet and raise the roof of the stagehouse to 95 feet from 63 feet.

The architect is RCG Inc., the Baltimore-based firm that prepared a master plan for modernizing the Lyric in the 1970s and has been working to carry it out ever since. The structural engineer is Shemro Engineering of Bethesda. Sachs Morgan Studios of New York is the theater consultant, and Jaffe Holden Acoustics of Norwalk, Conn., is the acoustician.

Their plan calls for construction of a sailboat-like structure, with two steel masts high above the stage area. Suspended from these masts by steel pipes would be a large metal enclosure that would serve as the Lyric's new stagehouse. This boxlike structure would be covered with a corrugated metal skin. Projecting from the east side would be six folded "plates," or vertical stiffeners, that each look like the underside of a giant canoe and help give the structure lateral support. The bottom of this box, 18 feet above the sidewalk, is the level of the expanded stage.

The concept is a bit like a bathtub shower curtain hanging from a rectangular metal rod. The top is reminiscent of the rigging above the office tower at 100 E. Pratt St. -- the building that looks as if it's wearing a hairnet. A cable counterweight system would replace the old "hemp house" system of flying scenery with ropes and pulleys.

This suspended armature is unusually cost-efficient, the designers say, because the structural system and outer skin are one and the same.

"It's a very economical use of materials," said architect Jonathan Fishman. "It's not just skin on structure. The skin is the structure. Nothing is decorative. We haven't found anything else that works as well."

Downtime kept to minimum

Designers say the stagehouse superstructure could be built while the existing stage and exterior walls are in place, so the performance season wouldn't be interrupted while preliminary construction is under way. Once the addition's outer walls are in place, contractors could remove the old walls and roof from inside, a process that would shorten the time the stage is out of commission. Work tentatively is scheduled to begin in mid-2002 and be completed by early 2004, but the theater would be dark only from March 2003 to early 2004.

Also, because the stagehouse is suspended from masts rather than supported on columns, there would be fewer obstacles at ground level to block movements of cars and pedestrians. One lane of Maryland Avenue would be eliminated so the sidewalk could be widened, a concept that has the backing of city planners. An addition south of the stagehouse would provide more room off stage left to store scenery. The loading dock would be reconfigured so two tractor trailers could park there at the same time.

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