Opera House Theater Takes Shape

NEWPORT — Construction crews transforming the historic Opera House into the Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center at Washington Square have reached a point where people can visualize what the completed theater will look like at the end of June 2018. That’s the target completion date.

“It’s finally taking shape,” said Chuck Berlinghof, the owner’s representative for the board of trustees. “When I started working here, I thought, ‘Oh my God.’”

Berlinghof and James Farrar, owner of Farrar Associates Inc. of Newport, the general contractor for the more than $15 million project, took visitors through three stories of the Opera House on Thursday. The fourth floor, which will feature a mansard roof on the street side and a roof garden at the back, is yet to be constructed.

While a lot of work remains, the construction overseers say the project is on schedule.

The reconstructed theater will have 500 seats in the orchestra level and 200 seats in the balcony, which is less than the building originally had but roomier for today’s patrons. The structures of the orchestra and balcony are now clearly laid out and workers have framed the supporting structure for the balcony seats.

Kate Mitchell, Berlinghof’s granddaughter who graduated this year from Roger Williams University, researched the history of the Opera House, constructed in 1867, through newspaper accounts from the late 1800s. The Newport Daily News reported that there were “600 seats in the paraquet and 400 seats in the dress circle.”

The building went through multiple reconstructions and reconfigurations in its history, which made it confusing for the current construction crew when the project began.

The framing for the future control booth can now be seen on the third floor, high above the stage, and there will be seating to the left and right of the booth. There is a ramp from the newly constructed elevator shaft to this seating, which will be wheelchair-accessible.

Berlinghof turned toward the rear wall of the theater space on the third floor at this location.

“Until we punched a hole in that wall, we didn’t know where it would lead,” he said. “No one knew what was on the other side.”

The wall was put up when the theater was converted to a movie theater; after workers punched through it, former hotel rooms were discovered on the other side.

Now those rooms will be restored and become offices for the performing arts center. The original tongue-in-groove flooring has been salvaged and will be reinstalled.

“It’s part of the planning to qualify for historic tax credits,” Berlinghof said.

The architect and engineers could not see everything when they designed the new theater, he said.

Mohamad Farzan of Newport is the architect. He worked on the design with Christopher Buckley, a theater consultant from New York City.

To understand why there was such a confusing structure of walls and hidden rooms, it’s necessary to recap some of the history.

With the growing popularity of movies in the 1920s, the Opera House entered a new era as a movie theater and was reconstructed in 1929.

The formerly adjacent Perry House Hotel was severely damaged by a fire in 1955 and it spread to the Opera House, which had hotel rooms in the upper floors that were connected to the Perry House. A new structure was built to replace the hotel and while the Opera House lost its fourth floor, it continued to operate as a movie theater.

In 1979, the Opera House became a modern two-screen theater. A third theater was created later to increase options for customers.

Planning for the revitalization of the Opera House and its transformation into a new performing arts center began in 1999. The nonprofit Newport Performing Arts Center LLC bought the building in 2001. The theater’s 1970s-era facade was stripped away in 2002-03 and the original brick facade was restored at a cost of more than $1.5 million.

“I’ve been involved in the project for about 15 years now,” Farrar said Thursday. “I was hired to remove the movie theater facade and restore the original facade.”

The nonprofit arts center organization leased the building to an entertainment company, so movies continued to be shown in the triplex until that use ended in 2010.

Workers were busy on Thursday constructing a tunnel that will go underneath the new stage, from side to side, because the stage is not wide enough for a backstage area.

The floor of the new tunnel is “zero elevation, mean high-tide sea level,” Berlinghof said. The tunnel floor is about 16 feet below the Brick Alley Pub walkway behind the Opera House. The tunnel will be 7 feet high.

The original arch above the stage with its molded plaster work is being restored. The front of the stage will be cantilevered, meaning it will be supported by the steel beams that stretch from the back wall.

“The back wall was structurally suspect, so we had to reinforce it,” Berlinghof said.

A new annex building that is also four stories tall will replace the old annex building. Construction of the annex will begin in the fall. The annex will hold the staging area, dressing rooms, a freight elevator and equipment for utilities.

The old deficient annex was taken down in the spring of 2016 to give the construction crews an area to work from.

“This is about as tight a space as I’ve ever worked in,” Farrar said.

“About a year ago, we cleaned out the building, completed the asbestos abatement and did some selective demolition,” he said. That was in preparation for the major construction phase that began in last fall.

There are now 20 to 30 construction workers on the site daily. There are steel, masonry, carpentry, plumbing, mechanical and sprinkler crews on board.

“It will pick up as we bring more trades in,” Farrar said.

The 150th anniversary of the Opera House will take place on Dec. 28, since the first curtain went up in the theater on Dec. 28, 1867. The anniversary date also will be Berlinghof’s 87th birthday.

“That will be momentous,” Berlinghof said with a smile.

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