Out of The Alley

Brutalist building gets a $45.6 million revamp as Houston's premier theater company zooms forward

Brutalist building gets a $45.6 million revamp in big theater move

Alley Theatre @UH
The University of Houston will play host to the Alley Theatre during the 2014-15 season. Rendering courtesy of Alley Theatre
Alley Theatre, Front Exterior in daylight rendering May 2013
Rendering of the Alley Theatre's exterior after the $46.5 million renovation project. Rendering courtesy of Studio RED Architects
Alley Theatre
The Alley Theatre today. Photo by Alley Theatre
Alley Theatre @UH
Alley Theatre, Front Exterior in daylight rendering May 2013
Alley Theatre

The clock had been ticking ever since the Alley Theatre announced in April the launch of a $73 million big ticket campaign that would include a $46.5 million renovation of its 1968 Ulrich Franzen brutalist building. Although the architectural style was all the rage during the mid 20th century, the castle-like structure that was conceived as a "building that sings from any viewpoint" seemed as if it was warming up to croon its swan song, dingy, sad and passé — a far cry from the groundbreaking modern marvel it once was.

The time is now, ladies and gentlemen. Alley Theatre officials are set to reveal Wednesday afternoon that the execution of the makeover will begin in July. The renovation process is expected to continue through the following summer and to be completed in the fall, in time for the beginning of the 2015-16 season.

"The reception from the Houston community toward the Alley campaign has been excellent," Roger Plank, co-chair of the Extended Engagement Capital Campaign, said in a statement. "We have raised $40.3 million to date and are eager to begin construction."

The schedule of improvements is ambitious. The highlights include:

  • Remove four steel columns in the middle of the stage
  • Add a fly loft with computer controlled motorized rigging
  • Create a fully trapped stage floor that will allow the ability to have an orchestra pit
  • Replace front of house ceiling with a catwalk system for light and sound
  • Upgrade speakers with remote amplification ability
  • Renovate actor dressing rooms and add additional dressing rooms
  • Add American with Disabilities Act seating in multiple locations with lifts
  • Replace interior with all new seats and carpeting
  • Replace air conditioning/heating system with a significantly quieter multi-zoned system with localized control
  • Replace windows with energy efficient glass
  • Replace the entire roof
  • Install new plumbing throughout the building

Studio RED Architects was selected for the undertaking, alongside a creative team that includes Studio RED principal Pete Ed Garrett, Irvine Team DCS president and CEO Dennis Irvine, lighting and scenic designer Kevin Rigdon, Jaffe Holden Acoustics chairman Mark Holden and Bill Conner Associates founder Bill Conner as project consultant.

 Before the Alley relocates to the University of Houston, many upgrades to the school's facilities are needed.

Back to School

In the meantime, the University of Houston will play host to the professional company during the 2014-15 season. The Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre, which Alley administrators say is similar to Broadway and League of Resident Theatres houses, was the only space available for the duration of the facelift venture.

"This is an outstanding opportunity for our theater students to directly engage with the Alley's working professionals," UH chancellor Renu Khator says. "In addition to specific internships, simply sharing the hallways is a wonderful chance for our students to make connections and gain insight from the Alley's experienced and talented actors and staff. I know they'll experience the energy of our students as well."

Before the Alley relocates to the University of Houston, many upgrades to the school's facilities are needed.

The Wortham Stage will be outfitted with a new framework for lighting, sound equipment and stage machinery. State of the art control platforms, flooring, air systems, communications systems and lighting will be installed in the Quintero Theatre. The costume shop will also be expanded.  

While the gesture of southern hospitality is commendable, the temporary move could have a negative effect on the Alley's revenue.

The Alley is accustomed to operating on two stages that collectively accommodate 1,130 theater goers. It isn't rare for production runs to overlap one another. With 565 seats and one performance stage — 50 percent less capacity than its downtown property — the Alley's interim home at the University of Houston could hinder the nonprofit from meeting the needs of its audience.

One additional significant drawback is the disaster of a parking situation that's experienced by anyone visiting the University of Houston. School of Theatre and Dance director Jim Johnson says that parking concerns are being addressed with a major overhaul. Lets just hope UH gets its act together. That would deserve a standing ovation.

As for the Alley's 68th season, the lineup will be released next week.