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Engineers for an Icon PUBLIC ACCESS

The Restoration of Radio City Music Hall Returns a Landmark to its Original Glory—with a Number of Updates.

Mechanical Engineering 123(09), 56-59 (Sep 01, 2001) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2001-SEP-3

This article highlights the restoration of Radio City Music Hall that returns a landmark to its original glory with a number of updates. At the height of its glory, the hall was a glamorous showplace for first-run films and live entertainment on a stage that measures 144 by 66½feet. When the army of architects, engineers, and consultants attacked the restoration of Radio City Music Hall, they discovered that many of the technical systems in the building were the same ones that were in place when the building opened more than 65 years earlier. The goal of architectural lighting throughout the building was twofold: to restore everything that was there and to upgrade everything to meet modern expectations. To reduce maintenance and increase reliability, the designers re-engineered the marquee to use smaller transformers, with fewer lamps per transformer.

Radio city music hall is not only the largest theater in New York City, it is easily the most famous. Built in 1932 as part of Rockefeller Center, it was hailed by The New York Herald Tribune as “the most remarkable auditorium ever built.” At the height of its glory, the hall was a glamorous showplace for first-run films and live entertainment on a stage that measures 144 by 66У2 feet.

With almost 6,000 seats, Radio City can host close to 36,000 guests in a single day, for instance, when the annual Christmas Spectacular sells out all six daily performances. But things were not always cheerful at this bastion of popular entertainment.

In the 1970s, the building was slated for demolition, as incredible as that might seem today. An eleventh-hour award of landmark status in 1979 saved the structure from the wrecking ball. An icon of American art deco architecture, Radio City Music Hall has received a much-needed restoration and is once again every bit as remarkable as it was when it opened.

Stretching along the entire block of Sixth Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets in Manhattan, Radio City Music Hall was originally designed by architect Edward Durell Stone. Interior designer Donald Deskey was responsible for the stylish look of the large lobbies and lounges.

Ellen Lampert-Greaux is a freelance writer based in New York.

Architect Hugh Hardy, principal of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, spearheaded the eight-month renovation of the facility, which was completed in the fall of 1999.

Designers' reworking of the Music Hall's marquee included a return to historic neon colors.

Grahic Jump LocationDesigners' reworking of the Music Hall's marquee included a return to historic neon colors.

Several specialist firms, most based in New York, also worked on the project: Robert Silman Associates, structural engineers; Meyer, Strong & Jones Engineers, mechanical engineers; Fisher Dachs Associates, theater consultants; Fisher Marantz Stone, architectural lighting designers, and Barr & Barr, construction managers. The acoustician, Jaffe Holden Acoustics, is based in Norwalk, Conn.

“This is an interpretive restoration,” Hardy said.

To give the building as much of its original look as possible, extensive research went into lighting fixtures, wall coverings, furniture, carpeting, and curtains. At the same time, a number of contemporary updates deviated from the original as needed.

When the army of architects, engineers, and consultants attacked the restoration of Radio City Music Hall, they discovered that many of the technical systems in the building were the same ones that were in place when the building opened more than 65 years earlier.

John Palucci, an HVAC engineer, was project manager for Meyer, Strong & Jones. His colleague, Trevor Ricketts, served as electrical engineer. According to Palucci, his firm was hired by Radio City’s management before the renovation began.

“We came in to review the condition of the mechanical and electrical infrastructure,” Palucci said. “Many of the systems required attention.” That was because many systems dated back to 1932. Before the renovation was over, the theater received more than 1,000 miles of new wire.

Hidden elements, including controls for the auditorium's sunset coves and hydraulic valves beneath the stage, were replaced during the restoration.

Grahic Jump LocationHidden elements, including controls for the auditorium's sunset coves and hydraulic valves beneath the stage, were replaced during the restoration.

The electrical service was upgraded to support the plans for a new theatrical lighting system. New air conditioning was installed and so was electrical power support for a new building-wide voice and data communication system, as well as a street-side power and control room for remote broadcasting trucks.

“Our challenge was to update the mechanical and electrical systems without disturbing the landmarked interiors,” Palucci explained. “All of the architectural finishes were to be restored to their original condition, so our designs are concealed in back-of-house areas.”

The consultants found that much of the original technology was still in place in the stage area as well. For example, a vintage hydraulic system operated three stage lifts and the orchestra lift.

There is a story that, when World War II broke out, guards were stationed by the lifts to make sure the technology wasn’t stolen, because it could also be used for aircraft carrier lifts.

“Each lift had a big valve,” said Joe Mobilia, project manager and associate principal at Fisher Dachs Associates. “These were the heart of the system, but they were nursing the parts along and were really living on borrowed time. The fact that they were still working is a tribute to Peter Clark, who installed the original system, and the attention the staff gave to keeping it running.”

Although Radio City technicians (including Chris Rober, who is responsible for the maintenance of the lifts, and Eric Titcomb, who runs them during performances) would have liked to keep the old system in place, the hydraulic valves were ultimately replaced. This meant that the control system also needed to be updated because the new interface could not communicate with the beautiful brass control panel that came with the theater.

If you go backstage today, you can see the panel still in place, with a computer console beside it. “The intention is that you can run the show from the computer or from the original panel (which has been updated) if you want to,” Mobilia said. The computer seems to be the control of choice for the new system, which was designed and installed by J.R. Clancy of Syracuse, N.Y.

Larger fixtures, such as the chandeliers in the grand foyer, were refurbished in place because restorers chose to avoid the risks involved in moving them.

Grahic Jump LocationLarger fixtures, such as the chandeliers in the grand foyer, were refurbished in place because restorers chose to avoid the risks involved in moving them.

Other original elements include a 43-foot-diameter turntable that straddles the stage lifts, an ice skating surface, and a car that can hold the orchestra. The car can sit on the lift to raise a 35-piece orchestra 13 feet above the stage. The lift also can lower the car full of musicians 27 feet below stage level and bring it up again at the back of the stage, where a driver hidden inside can take over to direct the vehicle across the stage.

Also still in place are perforations for a steam curtain. They run across the front of the stage, parallel to the footlights, and allow a curtain of steam to fill the proscenium arch, enabling the Rockettes to make appearances shrouded in mist.

Mobilia and the team of Fisher Dachs Associates collaborated with the mechanical engineers from Meyer, Strong & Jones on many of the electrical and mechanical issues of the renovation. “The engineers worked with us on adding extra power and redistribution of power throughout the building,” Mobilia said.

His firm also designed a new, highly sophisticated stage lighting system, with dimming and control equipment from Electronic Theatre Controls in Wisconsin and Ethernet connections for two-way communication and distribution of lighting protocol.

Before the renovation, electrical cables would often be run throughout the building, sometimes in and out of upper story windows, for television broadcasts or other outside productions that rented the hall. The renovation called for undedicated power lines and disconnect boxes to let television shows, such as the annual MTV Awards, tap into the building’s power without extensive cable runs.

One of the unusual features of the auditorium is the barrel-vaulted ceiling, with color-changing “sunset” coves using a General Electric Thyratron dimming system (which was also in place until the 1999 renovation). Today all of the fighting is run by new dimmers from Electronic Theatre Controls.

The goal of architectural lighting throughout the building was twofold: to restore everything that was there and to upgrade everything to meet modern expectations. “The light levels were really low in some places, actually less than one foot-candle,” said Scott Hershman, principal designer for Fisher Marantz Stone.

Throughout the hall, the architectural lighting was updated, but with the same look as the incandescent sources that were used in the past. “The halogen downlights are dimmed to warm them up,” Hershman noted. “We looked at replacing some of the lamps with more modern, longer-life sources, but found that the color rendering was wrong for the character of the project. There are a lot of reds and golds in the interiors.”

Just as Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer worked to restore the original colors to the carpets, wall coverings, and finishes, the lighting designers also worked to correct the color of the illumination. Where designers couldn’t use longer-life lamps, they relied on dimming to increase the lamp life as much as possible.

A necessary update in the auditorium was a lighting system that can serve three separate functions: work lights, emergency lights, and lights for the daily tours of the building. “For work light there was just one 1.000- watt fixture hanging in the middle of the space. It didn’t even go up to the ceiling; it just hung there,” Hershman said.

A more flexible replacement system uses 10 PAR-64 1.000- W long-life metal halide lamps in fixtures placed in a ceiling slot. Unlike most metal halide lamps, which take a while to light, these restrike immediately, making them usable for emergency lighting.

Sconces, chandeliers, and other fixtures were photographed. Many of the fixtures were taken down, packed up, and sent out for restoration.

The massive chandeliers in the grand foyer and other large decorative fixtures were restored in place, with a metal refinisher coming in to buff them up. “There was some fear in taking down the larger pieces,” Hershman said.

The designers also tackled a complete relight of the colorful neon marquee and signage on the exterior of the building. “We put a lot of effort into the marquee,” Hershman said.

To reduce maintenance and increase reliability, the designers re-engineered the marquee to use smaller transformers, with fewer lamps per transformer.

For example, the letter “O” in Radio has an outline, inner line, and central fill. “With separate transformers, if one fails, you don’t lose the whole letter,” Hershman said. “The old clear tubes for the blue neon were not bright enough, so we used phosphor-coated tubes for a higher lumen output and drop in the transformer size.”

There were also what Hershman called “secret lights,” because they literally could not be seen in a cove position. “We repainted the cove and increased the output of the lamps. Now at least you can see them at night,” he said. “We also went back to the historic neon colors of the signs.”

The original specifications for the signs were found and given to Broadway National Sign in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., where the old colors were recreated. Although Hershman is quite a neon aficionado, he called in neon consultant Wayne Strattman of Boston to help prepare the specifications. “The key is to get colors you can reproduce if the lamps break,” said Hershman. “We picked glass tube colors that exist in manufacturers’ catalogs.’ They also made an illuminated model of part of the sign to check on the colors.

Throughout the entire project, the goal of the architectural lighting was to integrate it into a land-mark without having it be intrusive. “This is a fabulous building,” Hershman said. “We were both blessed and cursed that it hadn’t been touched since 1932. We wanted to bring it back to its former glory and meet today’s requirements without imposing 1999 on it. The idea was to enhance it without taking away from its splendor.”

The art deco mural in the men's smoking room at Radio City Music Hall.

Grahic Jump LocationThe art deco mural in the men's smoking room at Radio City Music Hall.

The acoustics in the auditorium were also in need of updating. Mark Holden, the principal-in-charge for Jaffe Holden, noted the special challenges of the project, including an odd echo.

“Sound bounced off the balcony rails in front of each mezzanine, and also off the walls and doors at the back of the auditorium,” he noted. To his surprise, this was apparently intentional, as the room was designed to have the sound bounce toward the back. But the original ceiling arches (made of a sound-absorbent material) had been painted over and had become more reflective as the years went by.

“As amplication of performers increased, the echo got worse,” Holden added. “The singers did not like the echo effect.” To combat this, the acousticians made the rear wall of the theater more sound-absorbent, with a new cotton and fiberglass version of the wall covering designed to absorb more sound and reduce the echo.

 A Couple of Blocks Away

The site of ASME’s International Mechanical Engineering Conference and Exposition November 11-16 is the New York Hilton, at 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue, or the Avenue of the Americas, as it is officially called.

The hotel is two blocks north of Radio City Music Hall. Because of its unusual technical features, the restored art deco landmark was chosen by the editors of Mechanical Engineering as a possible site of interest for members attending the Congress. Information about Music Hall tours is available at (212) 247-4777.

Today, Radio City Music Hall is used for concerts, film premieres, and televised events, as well as for the Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes. “Carnival,” a new springtime event, is scheduled to open in May 2002. Now that it has been so spectacularly restored, Radio City Music Hall can once again wear its nickname, Showplace of the Nation, with pride.

“This was a special project for all of us,” Mobilia said. “There is really no place like it.”

Copyright © 2001 by ASME
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