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Project: Granada Theatre, Santa Barbara, CA

Architect: Phillips Metsch Sweeney Moore Architects, Inc., Santa Barbara, CA; Roger Phillips, AIA, lead interior architect; Stephen Metsch, AIA, principal architect; Monisha Adnani, AIA, project manager

By Annabel Hsin

In the early 1920s, downtown Santa Barbara, CA, was split into upper and lower areas – with the latter thriving with businesses. Edward A. Johnson, president of California Theater Company, purchased a lot on State Street in upper downtown for $800 that was covered with billboards and dilapidated wood buildings. He planned to build a half-million-dollar structure that would include eight floors of offices and a grand motion picture theater.

The proposed 119-ft.-tall Granada Building was dubbed a skyscraper by activists and was largely rejected by the local community. City officials, however, welcomed the theater and anticipated that other businesses and patrons would frequent the area. In fact, several restaurants opened up on neighboring blocks during the theater’s construction. A year after the project plans were announced, an ordinance that prohibited buildings over 60-ft. tall was issued and later incorporated into the City Charter. As a result, the Granada Building remains the tallest structure in Santa Barbara.

Rob Rossi of Rossi Enterprise purchased the Granada Building in 2003 and separated the eight-story tower and theater into two properties. He donated a 99-year lease of the theater to a nonprofit group, Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts (SBCPA). The group immediately raised funds to renovate the theater and hired Santa Barbara-based Phillips Metsch Sweeney Moore Architects (PMSM) for the restoration project – a firm that had worked on various restoration projects for the Granada Theatre dating back to the 1970s. "Our goal in the restoration and renovation was to be as true as possible to the original 1920s character of the building, while providing a more comfortable and contemporary experience for performers and audiences alike," says Roger Phillips, lead interior architect at PMSM.

The Granada Theatre had undergone many changes during its 80 years of operation including being turned into a multiplex. The theater had been converted into three auditoriums – in addition to the main room, the balcony was walled off and split in two. Many of the original Spanish-Moorish style decorative elements were removed or painted over. The interiors were painted black and the original Corinthian columns and capitals were painted an unsightly blue. The proscenium and mural above the stage was still intact, but the ceiling above had been damaged and neglected. "The first thing we did," says Monisha Adnani, project manager at PMSM, "was demolish the wall that separated the theater because we had no idea what the theater really looked like."

After the existing wall was demolished, it was determined that the stage and orchestra pit had to be torn down to expand the stage for large Broadway productions. "We were very limited on how much we could expand on the building," says Adnani. "This is one of the tallest buildings in town and we couldn’t build above that; it’s already beyond the allowable height for Santa Barbara." Fortunately, there was a 10-ft. wide alley on the east side of the property behind the stage area that allowed the stage to be expanded to 40 ft. deep. The client also requested a wider proscenium and since the stage is new, it facilitated a 52-ft.-wide stage front.

On the north side of the building there were 14 existing dressing rooms that were too small and lacked proper stair access. The dressing rooms were demolished for a new north addition that provided space for a large dressing room, dimmer room, stairwell, an elevator and stage access.

The dressing rooms were rebuilt under the orchestra floor. The existing basement, however, was an extremely small area that housed a 4-ft. deep orchestra pit. Adnani and the design team drew up at least 15 basement design plans to fit as many dressing rooms as possible. The final design expanded the basement and provided enough space for an orchestra pit that elevates three levels, as well as 48 makeup stations located within nine dressing rooms – each room with its own shower and restroom facilities. "We added makeup stations that are not the simple, dreary looking stations," says Adnani. "We really made an effort to make them look attractive and appealing to performers. The stations were custom built with decorative arm bases inspired by 1930s designs."

"One of the overall aesthetic goals was using elements from the original designs so we could have the flavor of this particular theater from the 1920s and then add the feeling of a European opera house," says Phillips. To create the opera house environment, Phillips drew inspiration from two existing faux opera boxes and added four extra ones on either side of the stage, positioning them at three different levels and providing them with stair access. Decorative elements such as moldings, decorative friezes and carved support brackets were incorporated into the design for a grander appearance. The opera boxes were placed close to each other to give the illusion that they’re much larger in size. "That was a real challenge," says Phillips, "as there wasn’t enough height. So I used a Disney trick and designed them at a reduced scale."

PMSM collaborated with acoustic consultants McKay Conant Hoover of Westlake Village, CA, to incorporate acoustical refinements so that the theater would be suitable for a variety of performances. Initial studies found that it was necessary to install acoustic baffles along the auditorium walls to direct sound towards the audience and increase reverberation time. The baffles were made of glass-fiber-reinforced gypsum concrete with a staggered wedge surface. The 15x42-in. concrete modules were designed in a mosaic-like pattern of alternating flowers painted in cream and gold colors to complement the Spanish-Moorish style. "Phillips did an excellent job designing them," says Adnani. "They look like they’ve been there forever."

Most of the lighting fixtures were custom made by Santa Barbara, CA-based Steven Handelman Studios in the company’s signature Santa Barbara Renaissance style (which was inspired by original light fixtures at the Granada Theatre). Chandeliers, wall scones and pendants were hand-forged using the same non-mechanical techniques that were used when fabricating existing fixtures. "Elegant lighting control creates the perfect ambiance," says Phillips. "A large part of the success of the Granada is that we were able to create an atmosphere and use light as a fluid element."

During the design phase of the project, PMSM hired New York, NY-based EverGreene Architectural Arts (EAA) to conduct a study to determine the original color palette by analyzing chips of existing paint. The study included a survey of a 40-ft.-dia. medallion-like chandelier and found that it was severely damaged with holes for a fire sprinkler system. EAA spent six months restoring the chandelier along with the surrounding coffered ceiling. New lighting fixtures were installed in the chandelier that could be lighted in tones of red, blue or green.

EAA also worked on a series of niches that never made it past the drawing boards. The niches were presumably omitted because they were close to the ceiling and weren’t visible to the audience. "We started to open up walls and found this niche," says Adnani. "It was just a depression, none of the architecture features were there. We had looked at the original drawings where the niches were shown but we couldn’t find them in any of the old photographs. So Phillips went back to change the design to make these niches come to life."

The revitalized Granada Theatre represents a community coming together to restore a piece of the town’s history. "The board members have left a legacy for new generations by taking the effort of raising $52 million to make this project happen," says Adnani. Completed in March of 2008, the community can now enjoy live performances in a fully restored theater reminiscent of the 1920s and complete with new state-of-the-art equipment. "During an open house for the community," recalls Adnani, "there was a line of at least 200 people standing outside waiting to see the theater – they were given tours and loved it." TB

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