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4 Steps for Maintaining a Historic Theatre

Certain things are so classic and widely loved that they never go out of style…like toasted bread or Mozart’s four seasons. Theatres are one of those things. Despite all the entertainment provided by advanced technology, live performances are still desirable for both actors and spectators alike. For this reason, theatres have not and should not go out of style. On the contrary, due to the theatre’s impact it has on individuals and communities, historic theatres should absolutely be maintained so that they can continue to provide this appeal and beauty to the lives of many.

Maintenance Vs. Restoration

Theatre maintenance looks a bit different from theatre restoration. Generally, a historic theatre needs restoration when it is already hurting, already in need of a change whether that be repair or a good freshening up. In contrast, a theatre is in need of maintenance before it has gotten to that point. However, depending on the maintenance/up-keep schedule, repair and restoration may be identified during maintenance reviews. Maintaining a theatre involves measures aimed at keeping the building the way it is and preventing any deterioration or wear while providing a safe and functioning environment for all. This includes not only plumbing, electrical, theater equipment, and all the other nitty-gritty maintenance involved in building up-keep, but maintenance of the architectural elements as well.

Often owners will refrain from fixing small issues in their theatres such as leaks or rotten woodwork and will consequently ignore them or find temporary fixes. This is called deferred maintenance and is the biggest culprit in the deterioration of a building’s structure and beauty. Small problems, if not addressed properly and right away, will only grow with time and deferred maintenance costs are exponentially more than if addressed immediately. We find deferred maintenance to be such a monumental challenge that it can easily cause the loss of revenue and ultimate closing of beautiful and worthy historic buildings.

Example problem areas in need of attention.

Process

The art of maintaining a historic theatre is not a “one and done” type of deal common to architectural projects. It is a process that involves periodic check-ups and assessments as well as the proper upkeep, which is the key to success for both the beauty of the building as well as the safety of those who use it. It is important to have proper personnel available to regularly inspect, clean, and manage the theatre as well as to know when it is appropriate to bring in outside help.

Steps:

1) Routine Cleanings:

An important step to theatre maintenance is a regular and routine cleaning of all architectural elements. Knowledge of the proper way to clean elements and the materials to use in order to prevent damage and wearing on finishes is key. Developing cleaning and maintenance schedules is also very helpful. Additionally, cleaning is an excellent way to keep an eye on the theatre in case anything is in need of maintenance.   

2) Regular Walkthroughs/Inspections:

Regular walkthroughs and visual inspections are the first line of defense and key in properly maintaining a theater. Having an assessment log that tracks the date, areas of concern, details of what is being seen, whether it is a potential safety issue as well as if further investigation should be done, can be very helpful for maintenance monitoring. Taking pictures of the areas being tracked is also recommended.

3) Historic Buildings Conditions Assessment:

Depending upon the conditions tracked in the walkthroughs, a historic buildings conditions assessment should be executed as a more in-depth study of the elements of the theatre and what needs to be done. Each conditions assessment must, by nature, be tailored to the individual historic theatre being investigated or analyzed. That being said, most assessments follow an approach similar to the one outlined below.

      • Before conducting the on-site investigation or assessment, we prefer to review any available primary sources—such as architectural specifications, drawings, diary entries, newspaper or magazine articles, etc. These resources, paired with an understanding of the owner’s goals and aspirations, offer valuable insight into the history of a structure and allow us to theorize about important elements or areas within a structure which may warrant closer on-site inspection.
      • This background research is followed by an on-site assessment, during which experts examine, investigate, and assess all relevant areas within a structure, which could include decorative elements (paint, gilding, ornamental plaster, etc.) as well as structural elements (marble, stone, wood, metal, etc.) or murals and fine art. The conditions of these elements are thoroughly documented through a mixture of photographs, architectural drawings, and overlay mappings (as deemed appropriate).
      • Off-site laboratory analysis may be necessary to identify and document certain materials, such as paint and finishes, plaster substrates and compositions, wood species, etc.
      • In addition to documenting the existing conditions of the structure, the resulting report can help to inform project sequencing, budgets, and schedules, and typically includes recommended next steps for maintenance and stabilization.

4) Stabilize Potential Issues:

Depending on the information obtained in the building assessment, some elements will be in better or worse shape than others. Parts discovered to be in potential danger of wearing should be stabilized in order to prevent deterioration. This will look different for different elements. For example, wood maintenance often involves re-varnishing woodwork, paint stabilization involves reattaching flaking paint or applying a protective top coat.

Investigation in Progress.

These steps only outline the general process of historic theatre maintenance which is much more detailed for each specific area. Since architectural maintenance is important, it is also important that it is done properly which may involve consulting a professional. If you have any questions or a project you would like to discuss, please contact us.

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