Project DescriptionFROM THE AIA INDIANA:
The Circle Theatre was one of the most distinctive buildings in Indianapolis when it was built in 1916. In 1984 it literally was saved from the wrecking ball and converted to a performance hall as the home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO), now known as the Hilbert Circle Theatre. The rehabilitation adapted the structure to its new use without compromising its his-toric detail. The Hilbert Circle Theatre is a major asset to the city and a keystone structure to the continued vitality of Monument Circle. The theater is notable, not only due to its design, its history and its location, but to its significant conversion from a vaude-ville movie house to a first class symphonic performance hall. This adaptation of the Circle Theatre helped to elevate the ISO to one of the top orchestras in America and has successfully continued in its original adaptive purpose over twenty five years later.
The Hilbert Circle Theatre was originally designed by the renowned Indianapolis architectural firm of Rubush and Hunter, and was constructed by the Bedford Stone Construction Company. On its opening the Indianapolis Star attested to the building’s architectural significance: “The snowy front of the new building with its frieze of Grecian dancing girls and musicians, with a great picture with the same motif above the entrance, … makes a very valuable contribution to the architecture which surrounds the soldiers monument” and went on to say, “The exterior is only a hint at the beauty within the doors.” The Indiana Preservation-ist (March/April 1992) applauds the architecture saying “The theater’s glazed terra cotta façade is an example of Adamesque Neo-Classicism that was popular in the United States in the early twentieth century. It unites a variety of classical elements in-cluding a central pediment, pilasters and bas-reliefs of Grecian figures with particular delicacy and lightness” and goes on to say, “The interior included amber glass chandeliers, oil paintings, mahogany furniture, rose colored carpets and plush upholstery. This luxury was revolutionary to Indianapolis’ movie-going public, who had grown accustomed to the cheap ornamentation and shoe box accommodations of the nickelodeon.”
The Hilbert Circle Theatre is located on Monument Circle which was the centroid of Alexander Ralston’ Plan in laying out the city with the major streets converging into a traffic circle around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Monument Circle is not only The Icon for the city of Indianapolis but is its most significant urban space and undeniably a most important address for a theater.
The Circle Theatre opened only three years after the Regent Theater in New York City as the first major forum for showing moving pictures and was the first movie house west of Broadway. It was the first theater in Indianapolis to show Al Jolson in the “The Jazz Singer” on February 4, 1928 and remained the Grand Dame of the movie theaters in Indianapolis for many years. In 1970’s it had sank to showing “C” grade movies. The uncertain future of the Circle Theatre filled the press from the mid-1970s to its rebirth in the 1984. It was rumored to be targeted for a parking lot when Indianapolis Power and Light tried to buy it, with both buyer and seller fighting its designation on the National Register of Historic Places in the press and in the courtroom. IPL did finally buy the theater and with the benefit of historic preservation tax credits worked with the community and the Indianap-olis Symphony to convert the structure to a first class performance hall and it remains so today with continued maintenance and upgrades.
Adapting a structure to a similar but different and in this case, a structurally more demanding use, while maintaining its historic detail and integrity demands a challenging preservation design. Key challenges to convert the structure from a vaudeville movie house to a symphonic hall included:
1. Widen the proscenium arch to enhance stage size and acoustical needs (requiring significant negotiations with the National Park Services to remove original Proscenium)
2. Extend the rear side of the stage 14 feet across Court Street; vacating the street 3. Remove dressing room stacks to add stage volume and acoustical shell 4. Extend stage front over original orchestra pit
1. Realignment of the seating rake (sloped floor) to improve audience sight lines
2. Improve quality of seating by increasing front to back spacing for improved leg room and reducing total seating from approximately 3000 seats to 1900 and increase the average seat width to improve overall comfort
3. Provide orchestra level box seating with individual arm chairs
4. Rebuild/restore historic box seats that had been removed during decline of the theater
5. Create new shell seats boxes on the three sides
1. Create a new lobby at orchestra level where none had existed since it was unnecessary for a Vaudeville movie house which did not have the more extensive intermission needs as today’s orchestras. The rehabilitated design removed seating from under the 2nd floor mezzanine to expand and link to the entry lobby and allow for patrons to socialize during intermissions.
2. Elevators accessing all levels of the theater
3. New HVAC throughout that was very carefully integrated into the historic detail elements and created a quiet high level comfort of air movement and humidity control that would not interfere with the acoustic requirements
4. Greatly expanded and renovated all restrooms
5. Provided totally new House and Stage lighting
6. Connected historic Circle Theater to two buildings on Washington Street (the main street immediately to the south) to provide supporting spaces for orchestra members, administration staff, music library, instrument storage and dressing rooms 7. Installed totally new Life Safety systems and equipment
E. Architectural and Structural Restoration/ Rehabilitation
1. Completed a total rehabilitation of the entire exterior envelope
ii. All exterior windows & glazing
iii. Restoration of Clifton Wheeler’s Grecian Mural
iv. Roofing, coping, membranes and drains
v. Rebuilt the entry lobby where the Adams Style plaster ornamentation had been either destroyed or covered over vi. Reintroduced classical interior painting scheme similar to original
vii. Restored ornamental plaster, decorative railings and marble finishes in mezzanine and auditorium upper lobby spaces
viii. Reproduced original carpet pattern which was created from an original piece discovered in a closet
ix. Refurbished and recreated glass chandeliers throughout the building
x. Created new Green Room/ multipurpose space overlooking Monument Circle
2. Renovation provided compliance with handicapped accessibility (now known as ADA) throughout the project