Beyer Blinder Belle restores the original home of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club at 74 East 4th street, Manhattan, NYC.
Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners has renovated and restored the original home of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, creating a state-of-the-art theater experience with expanded amenities and technology, while preserving the historic character of a cherished venue.
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, an off-off-Broadway theater founded in 1961 by African American theater producer and director Ellen Stewart as a haven for experimental work by underrepresented artists, moved into its first permanent home at 74 East 4th Street in Manhattan’s East Village in 1969. A designated New York City landmark, the building had been long associated with the performing arts—it was constructed in 1873 for the German-American orchestral society Aschenbroedel Verein and was later occupied by the Gesangverein Schillerbund singing society, among other uses—but after nearly 50 years since Stewart saved it from demolition was in need of significant improvements.
In 2015, La MaMa commissioned Beyer Blinder Belle—working with theater consultant Jean Guy Lecat and theater and acoustic consultant Charcoalblue—to reimagine and invigorate their original home to better support their growing international profile as a world-renowned cultural institution. Together, the team reconfigured the main performance venue, added a new theater workshop and event space, improved patron and performer support areas, brought the building up to code, and restored the historic facade.
The primary intervention was the lowering of the first-floor ceiling—to expand the height of the second-floor performance venue above—and the reclamation of the ground floor for an expanded, ADA-accessible lobby, new all-gender bathrooms, and a greatly enlarged dressing room. The lobby doubles as an event or prefunction space or informal performance venue, with a small pantry to support food and beverage service. To improve visual connections between the lobby and passersby on the street and sidewalk—and return the building to its historic 1880s appearance—a new glass-and-aluminum storefront with restored cast-iron pilasters reveals the interior to the public for the first time in decades.
On the second floor, the primary performance space, The Club, is a revitalized, highly flexible venue with up to 118 seats and state-of-the-art theater equipment. Lowering the floor made it possible to achieve ceiling heights of up to 16′-0″ in The Club and to accommodate new sound-separating floor constructions, devised by Charcoalblue’s acoustic team, which allow concurrent activity in both levels of the building. Brick walls, left exposed to reveal the historic patina of the building, harken back to the founder’s ethos of experimentation and creative freedom. In support of La MaMa’s global mission, the entire building, including The Club, is now equipped with a broadcast-enabled data network to stream all shows worldwide, supported by a robust “nerve center” of infrastructure and data servers on the cellar level.
To diversify La MaMa’s programming, the third floor was reclaimed for a double-height multipurpose space that supports small performances, rehearsals, community programs for adults and children, private functions, and more. This venue also opens onto a third-floor outdoor terrace at the rear of the building for additional event space. Staff offices and restrooms (and the upper volume of the Theater Workshop) occupy the fourth floor.
Historic preservation balanced the existing character of the landmark building with contemporary safety and accessibility requirements. The foundation was shored up, the masonry walls were patched and stabilized with injection grouting, the existing stair was relocated and expanded to meet code, a second fire stair was created at the rear of the building, and an elevator was installed for the first time. Decorative elements on the façade were restored and replaced, and dramatic uplighting now illuminates the facade at night, imparting a theatricality to the building’s street presence and heralding the renewal of a cornerstone of the city’s—and the world’s—theater community.
“There’s a lot of musical and performance history in that building,” says Richard Metsky. “We wanted to carry that history forward, to create a space that enables La MaMa to remain at the forefront of experimental theater for the next 50 years.”
Photo credit: John Bartlestone Photography