Here’s what a new $20 million plan for Coconut Grove Playhouse looks like

October 18, 2017
Detailed new designs for the long-simmering revival of the landmark Coconut Grove Playhouse, unveiled Monday, would marry its Mediterranean architecture to a new stand-alone theater building faced in rough rock, glass and lush hanging foliage. The aim: Evoke the historic village's spirit in a modern idiom.

The designs, developed for Miami-Dade County by a team led by Grove-based architectural giant Arquitectonica, are a significant step in an ambitious, years-long effort to reopen the historic playhouse, closed for a decade, as a smaller venue. It would be run by GableStage, a lauded local theater company, and Florida International University's drama program.

The new designs hew closely to conceptual plans for the historic site's revitalization that have split preservationists, Grove residents and the local theater community for nearly a year. But they do render in detail for the first time the look, layout and scale of what would be an extensively redeveloped playhouse site under a county-led revival plan.

The newly released renderings also include elements that could allay some preservationists' concerns, including preservation of the theater's iconic double stage proscenium arches and its twisted Mediterranean columns, which would be integrated into the modern new auditorium.

"We've done everything we said we would do, and more," said Miami-Dade cultural affairs director Michael Spring, who is managing the project for the county. "We have a project that is wonderful and beautiful and functional and respectful. And it's going to get better." The county will host a town hall meeting on the new designs at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium.

The county's $20 million plan, provisionally approved by Miami's historic-preservation board earlier this year, controversially calls for demolition of the 1927 theater's 1,100-seat auditorium, a structure originally designed for use as a movie theater and altered substantially over decades.

The county team's theatrical and historic-preservation consultants, Fisher Dachs Associates and Coral Gables architect Jorge Hernandez, respectively, concluded it was architecturally truncated, too large to be economically feasible and unsuited for modern live dramatic productions. That conclusion has been challenged in an appeal by Grove residents that will be heard by the Miami commission on Oct. 26.

The county plan would meanwhile fully restore the three-story, wing-shaped building by renown architect Richard Kiehnel that defines its iconic street presence on Main Highway. In addition, the new design would replace lost architectural features and reopening shopfronts to the street, as they were in the original.

The new set of site plans and renderings show how that would work: The front building would stand as a separate structure and house restaurants, shops and possibly offices and apartments, as it did originally, although Spring said those would likely not be connected to the theater company.

The historic playhouse entrance would become a breezeway connecting Main Highway to a public plaza, shaded by vine-like greenery on a trellis, and aligned with the glass-sheathed front door to the separate new theater building, which would house a state-of-the-art, 300-seat auditorium. The plaza takes the shape of the original crescent-shaped playhouse lobby, Spring said.

Unusally, the Arquitectonica design would face the new theater's front and sides with rock enclosed in blocks of metallic mesh, called gabion wall, that's typically used for retention in roadway construction or landscaping. That design move was inspired by a prominent coral rock wall across Main Highway from the playhouse building, Spring said.

"The idea is to pick up on this theme of Coconut Grove, where you have a rock and foliage delineating a property," Spring said.

The theater building would also house administrative offices, dressing rooms and rehearsal space. But although the site plan also shows costume and a scenery shop, the county's $20 million budget doesn't cover those facilities, Spring said.

"We will be looking and pushing for more money," Spring said. "It's not the ideal situation, but you can certainly run the theater without these functions on site."

Save for the necessary flyspace behind the new theater's stage, Spring said, the structure would be almost fully concealed behind the historic front building, preserving the historic view on Main Highway.

Separately, the plan also envisions construction of a five-level garage on the playhouse's surface parking lot by the Miami Parking Authority, likely in a deal with a private developer, Spring said. The new designs show 32 loft apartments with balconies fully hiding the garage on Main Highway and on a neighborhood street at the rear, though that plan is not final, Spring said.

"We want to show that the garage is not going to be this massive thing, but broken down to a human scale and pedestrian-friendly," Spring said.

The landscape plan includes numerous new street trees and greenery around the playhouse property's perimeter, especially where it meets a residential neighborhood at the side and rear, he noted.

Next step, Spring said: Construction drawings, work on which will start as soon as next week. The plan would need final approval from the city preservation board and other agencies. There is no date for groundbreaking, but Spring said he hoped construction will start by late 2018.

The county plan, however, has been dogged by criticism not just by preservationists and neighbors but also members of the local theater community.

The city preservation board had designated the playhouse a protected historic site in 2004. That measure covered the building's exterior but not the auditorium, the site of the U.S. debut of theater masterpiece "Waiting for Godot" and numerous other productions featuring stars of the stage and screen. The pending appeal seeks to revisit that 13-year-old decision and thus block the county plan from going forward.

Meanwhile, a foundation started by lawyer and cultural patron Mike Eidson, who calls the 300-seat theater plan unambitious, has been pushing for a 700-seat theater that would allow larger, more elaborate productions with big-name stars.

Miami Herald
Story By Andres Viglucci