August 26, 2015

Chris Waddington, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune 

Orpheum Theater developers will pop corks at the historic New Orleans hall on Thursday (Aug. 27), unveiling a $13 million, year-long renovation to invited guests. For those on the list, it's a chance to check sightlines at the legendary 1,500-seat listening room, which was shuttered by floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina.

Guest will have plenty to consider: an expanded marble-paved lobby, big new seats, eight new bathrooms, six permanent bars and an auditorium floor that can be raised to level when chairs are removed for standing room concerts and parties. The hall boasts a modern light array, a new movie screen, a new curtain, a rebuilt acoustic shell, and a state-of-the-art sound system to augment its celebrated natural sound.

Those acoustics were a key element for the Orpheum's anchor tenant, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, which will stage the first public event in the hall on Sept. 17: a performance of Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony. It's a homecoming for the ensemble, which has been on a 10-year odyssey around New Orleans venues since Katrina.

The LPO was deeply involved in the reconstruction, said developer Mary von Kurnatowski. She co-led the redevelopment project with husband Roland and business partner Dr. Eric George. The trio bought the Orpheum for $1.5 million in February 2014, and took advantage of Louisiana's generous live performance infrastructure tax credits to help finance the renovation.

"It was wonderful to be here when the musicians toured the hall, and played in this space that they loved so much before the storm. They listened to the building and so did we — if it's not broke, don't fix it was how we approached the project," she said. "We want this to be the house of Orpheus — a place that will celebrate music and the arts, and add a key element to the restored theater district of New Orleans."

The Orpheum recently announced some highlights from its upcoming season, which will include performances by rock band Wilco, country star Dwight Yoakam, Paul Taylor Modern Dance and the improvising duo of Bela Fleck and Chick Corea.

Like that lineup of artists, the renovated Orpheum Theater strikes a balance between old and new. Project architect Jack Sawyer of the Eskew, Dumez, Ripple design firm, called it "a renovation, not a reconstruction. We wanted to make the Orpheum a practical space for the 21st century without changing the beauty of its style or the sound of the hall."

That balancing act is obvious even before walking through the street-level doors at 129 Roosevelt Way, just outside the French Quarter.

The Orpheum's three-story terracotta façade shows exactly why Beaux Arts architects once studied the monuments of Paris and Rome: Replete with prancing figures and vining motifs, it got a major touch up and new lighting in the renovation. By contrast, the entrance awning is boldly contemporary: a pierced metal 21st century statement that clads the old canopy. (Preservationists, please note: the façade has had about eight different awnings over the past century).

Inside, the décor is also glorious. Cleaned, restored and repainted, the interior remains a hymn to the plasterer's art, from the masks and wreathes that frame the doorways to the mushroom-shaped light fixtures that hang from the hall's great dome, about 67 feet above the stage.

Mary Von Kurnatowski painted much of it, even riding a lift to the dome with her hand-selected crew of painters.

"I was never far from my box of paint chips during this process," she said. "I mixed 67 buckets of gold paint in my kitchen sink once we got the right color: gold but not gaudy. And I practically lived at the theater. It's important to spend a lot of time in a space before setting to work."

That eye for detail is apparent all over the building.

Kurnatowski commissioned lyre-shaped brass decorations for the lobby's interior doors, and chose modern chandeliers that continued the art deco feeling of the building's historic fixtures. And she took care of some practical amenities, too. She made sure that coat hooks went on the stall doors in the bathrooms — and worked with architect Sawyer to widen those stalls for patrons who might have their children with them.

"I'm the official obsessive-compulsive of this project," she said. "The details matter when you're working with a building as wonderful as the Orpheum. When we cut the ribbon this week, we want the building to be as much of a star as any of the performers who come here."


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