The state-of-the-art Stephen Sondheim Theatre was the first Broadway house to earn LEED Gold. Designed to create the highest-quality environment for audiences, cast and crew, the 50,000-square-foot building reflects New York’s vision of a more sustainable future, and makes a strong statement on behalf of green performing arts centers around the world.
We sat down with Jessica Keenan Wynn, who plays Cynthia Weil in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," on what it takes to be a successful actor performing eight times a week, and how the theatre—from the stage to the back-of-house operations—directly contributes to her health and well-being. Watch our video:
We also sat down with the Pam Campbell, partner at COOKFOX Architects, who led the renovation and oversaw the theatre’s LEED certification. In the Q&A below, she shares some of the unique challenges and opportunities with rebuilding a state-of-the-art venue as part of the adjacent One Bryant Park (the two are connected at the base) and reflects on the rewarding aspects of creating healthy workplaces and vibrant public spaces for everyone to enjoy.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your career, and the role you played specifically in the Stephen Sondheim Theatre’s renovation?
A: The project, which was then called the Henry Miller Theatre, had really just started when I joined COOKFOX, so it was a great opportunity to grow together with it. With all multi-year, complicated projects, the team really expands and changes over time from the design and the construction side, but I was really fortunate to be able to see it from the inception of the design, coming together as an idea, through opening night, which was wonderful.
Q: You transformed the 1918 Henry Miller Theatre into what is now a modern venue for all manner of productions. The fact that it also falls within the purview of One Bryant Park is also of note. What makes this theatre a unique space?
A: All Broadway theatres go through multiple renovations, and some of them extremely extensive. With the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, we really built a new theatre, which is fairly unusual in itself, but it was unique, I think, in a way that we had the responsibility to reinstate that site as a space for performing arts, which historically it had been.
It had a very colorful past, and we really wanted to pay respect to the design intention of the original creator, Henry Miller, who had his own philosophy about the new American theatre back in the time that it was built, and the proportions and the sort of space that it needed.
Meshing that goal with the responsibility to create new resources for the city and the sustainability aspects that we have to think about in new buildings, in many ways the theatre is an interesting intersection of looking after the cultural and historical resources that have been passed down to us from previous generations, and looking to create new resources for the future of the city.
The Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
Q: Tell us a little bit more about this space type. It has to accommodate a fluctuating number of occupants, and it’s typically very energy-intensive. Were there any particular strategies or LEED credits that you pursued that addressed those concerns?
A: Most of us experience performing arts under the mantle of public buildings and spaces as an audience member very briefly, and generally on an occasion of some sort. What we realized is that this isn’t just an occasion outside our daily routine, this is a workspace, a daily workspace for lots of people. So, that really refocused us towards the idea of a healthy workplace for people working long hours every day, and specifically focused on the indoor environmental credits.
We applied the commercial interiors-based system to the theatre, which wasn't that straightforward. There were credits for daylight and views, for instance, that weren’t appropriate for a theatre space, or walk-off mats that you can’t incorporate into the restored historic marble floor of the oval box office lobby, which is where you enter the theatre.
So there were definitely a lot of challenges in applying that system, but for the credits that we could achieve, we really focused on material choice and air filtration to create a healthy indoor air environment.
Q: I understand that something like 95 percent of the particulates are pretty much scrubbed from the air in the space. Is that accurate?
A: There are MERV15 filters in the air handling units that take about 95 percent of the particulate matter out of the air, which encompasses all air that is being delivered to the theatre space itself, as well as to the back-of-house spaces, the changing rooms and the offices where everyone spends their time.
Q: I would imagine that there would be some fairly unique heating and cooling techniques throughout the building, some things that are shared with One Bryant Park, that save a good amount of energy?
A: Correct. The theatre had the great advantage of being built at the same time that they were building the attached office tower, so sustainability strategies that made sense for a large office project could also be intertwined into the theatre as well.
I think that’s really a good argument for mixed-use planning, mixed-use zoning and how you can integrate the design of these various different uses, not just in terms of program. The two buildings were built as part of each other. We retained the historic façade of the theatre, and portions of the lobby, but beyond that, everything behind the façade was a new building with new systems.
One of the interesting things that is very common with theatre design is underfloor air. We debated it for the office tower, since it is still rare in this country, although it has a lot of benefits. It’s quieter and it brings the cool air closer to where you are sitting. We ended up doing underfloor air in the office tower as well as the theatre, as it made sense in both for many of the same reasons.
Q: How did the team work together to solve the design challenges you mentioned?
A: There was a very large team of consultants on this project, some of which were unique to the theatre, some of which were shared with One Bryant Park. We had specialist consultants, acoustic designers and theatre consultants, but a large team—and really the commitment from the client organization that wanted to achieve the sustainability goals that we were aiming for—was critical.
With any project, it takes four or five years to go through, and it’s a real challenge to keep up that momentum and commitment to sustainability. Having a dedicated team from the client side overseeing that was very important; when you get to the last minute scramble when everyone is trying to pull everything together for opening night, it’s important that somebody is still keeping an eye on those things. So having the support of the client and a dedicated person in charge of those elements was really important.
Q: What is the impact of green public assembly buildings on employees, visitors and the neighbors around the space that you've created?
A: I think public buildings, such as performing arts spaces, really have a unique opportunity because they are spaces that can be experienced by so many different people, and even if it’s brief [exposure], they are a great option for outreach and education, which a lot of other building types aren’t.
You might pick up magazines and read about how an office space has been designed, or a house somewhere that has been designed to meet high sustainability standards, but most people, in their day-to-day lives, don't have the opportunity to interact with spaces like that. So I think that's where public spaces really have a huge responsibility to push things and to make sure that people around them are aware.
Q: How do you think visitors and audiences experience the theatre, knowing everything that went into the project?
A: I think it is an unusual space in that it is a combination of new materials and old materials, and I think that creates a unique experience that people pick up on. There were some salvaged materials from the old theatre that were there in the form of decorative plaster work, and those are really juxtaposed beside newer materials like paper stone, the compressed paper product that we used in various locations of the interior. Those new and old materials together are something that is quite unique and that hopefully draws the eye and makes people ask questions like “What are they, were did they come from?”