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The Davis Theater Returns To Art Deco Glory With Multimillion-Dollar Rehab

By Patty Wetli | December 14, 2016 7:10am | Updated on December 14, 2016 2:28pm
 Davis Theater Carbon Arc First Look
Davis Theater Carbon Arc First Look
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LINCOLN SQUARE — Nearly a year after closing for a multimillion-dollar makeover, a dolled-up Davis Theater is set to reopen Thursday.

"She feels like she's got her sparkly earrings back on," said Faith Hurley, project manager for Analogous Co., a collaborative group of designers headed by Grant Stewart that was responsible for much of the theater's new look.

It was in June 2015 that Davis owner Tom Fencl announced plans to restore the nearly 100-year-old theater to its former art deco glory, along with the addition of an adjacent restaurant and bar dubbed Carbon Arc.

"Part of it was making a new space look old, and making an old space look new," Fencl said. "And making it homogenous, so it looks like they were always together."

The project received a boost from the National Park Service, which recognized the Davis as a historic landmark. The designation meant the renovation was eligible for tax credits — with strings attached.

Fencl, Hurley and architect Ben Kennedy, of Kennedy Mann Architecture, frequently negotiated with the Park Service on design elements from fabrics to lighting, with an eye toward remaining as true as possible to the Davis' original era, while also acknowledging that the theatergoing experience has undergone radical change since 1918.

"It was a balancing act between city requirements, our vision, the National Park Service and [accessibility] requirements, which didn't exist 80 years ago," Fencl said.

Among the sticking points: The Park Service insisted that Kennedy's plan retain the sloped floor in the theater's 300-seat "grand auditorium," which effectively killed any notion of modern stadium seating.

"It was a give-and-take" that led to several slowdowns and added months to the construction timeline, due to "the collective nature of so many things they wanted changed," Fencl said.

The old hand-lettered marquee is another mandated holdover, as is a small chandelier in the theater's lobby.

"It's less than a 'wow factor,'" said Hurley, but the chandelier is original, and the Park Service insisted it stay.

"It feels a little underwhelming for a lobby entrance, but we love it just the same," she said.

The overall "art deco industrial" aesthetic nods to the geometric patterns, metallics and textures of the early 20th century without slavishly reproducing them. 

"Respect tradition enough to evolve it — it feels like we hit that right," Hurley said.

The grand opening event is scheduled for 3-5 p.m. Thursday at the theater at 4614 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are on sale for screenings of "Rogue One."

(Click on the slideshow above to view larger images and additional photos.)

Pointing the way

[All photos DNAinfo/Patty Wetli except where indicated]

Lobbies, particularly in newer movie houses, tend to be the "noisiest" places in the theater from a design standpoint, with loud colors, loud signs and loud lights overloading patrons' senses.

"We really wanted to play against what people assume a theater to be," Hurley said. "We thought we could surprise people with clean lines and keep the noise simplified."

Though decorative accents are minimalist, each serves a purpose.

"You walk into that lobby and those art deco details literally point you where you're going," she said.

The luxe finishes are slightly deceptive — the lobby is designed to take a beating.

"The really awesome opportunity and challenge was finding beautiful things that are commercial-grade, that are sturdy but still have a refinement to them," Hurley said.

The 'aah' moment

The subtlety of the lobby gives way to eye-popping drama as patrons enter the Davis' grand auditorium, formed by uniting what were once the movie house's two rear theaters.

The auditorium seats 300 and will be the opening screen for all new releases, Fencl said.

"It's what this room was always meant to be," Kennedy said. "The coolest thing is the sheer volume of the space."

Here's where the design team unleashed the color red, so commonly found in other theaters.

"It's such a loud color — it doesn't play well with others," Hurley said, but the auditorium begged for the wow factor.

"We thought, let's let that [theater] be the 'diamond,'" she said.

The red is cleverly deployed to be most visible from the front of the auditorium. From the rear, patrons' eyes will first be drawn to the room's ceiling and organ pipes, which are among the last vestiges of the original theater.

"People can take that in and have that 'aah' moment," Hurley said.

Though Fencl said he's happiest with the emotion the theater evokes, the renovations made business sense as well.

The National Park Service may have nixed updates like stadium seating, but modern touches, including a wireless mic system, have been added to make the auditorium user-friendly not only for programming, such as director and cast Q&As, but corporate events that can be scheduled during hours the Davis would otherwise be dark.

Fencl's vision: "If you're having a sales team meeting, why not do it in a creative space?" for less money than Downtown — and have lunch catered by Carbon Arc.

"We'll be bringing people in from other parts of the city," he said. ""They'll get to know our neighborhood."

Hidden no more

Kennedy has a file folder on the Davis project that goes back five years. During that time, one of the most exciting moments came when members of the team poked their heads above the theater's drop ceiling and discovered the original vaulted ceiling was still largely intact, albeit in need of a good deal of TLC.

Long hidden behind drywall, the ornate plaster work was cleaned, painted and replaced where needed (Fencl estimates less than 5 percent is reproduction).

It mattered little to the team that much of the plaster detail will be lost to patrons sitting in the dark (the rear seats in the front screening rooms offer the best close-up look).

"It's way too cool to cover back up," said Kennedy, who was at a loss to explain why it was walled over in the first place.

The type of craftsmanship on view at the Davis fell out of favor in the latter half of the 20th century, but is enjoying a resurgence, he said.

"These are things people appreciate now," Kennedy said. "So many structures 30 years ago weren't saved — a lot more people care now."

Parallel universe

The first thing longtime Davis theatergoers will notice when they enter the 135-seat screening rooms: Not only are the screens doubled in size, they're no longer angled.

"All seats are parallel to the screen," Kennedy said.

Another enhancement: Food can be brought into the theater from neighboring Carbon Arc, with trays designed to snap into the seats.

The rear walls have been pushed back 12 feet from their former position, and consultants were brought in to review the sight lines and acoustics, he said.

A hallway separates the two screening rooms, but the grand auditorium sits directly behind them. To prevent sound bleed, special materials were used behind the screens, and the drywall between the screening rooms and auditorium is nearly 1½ inches thick, according to Kennedy.

Last, but not least

On a typical design job, bathrooms are often an afterthought.

"They're always left to the end; the client's usually out of money," Hurley said.

But with the Davis renovation, the restrooms were the one feature she knew she absolutely had to knock out of the park.

"In all the reviews, they were the only thing ripped apart. There was so much conversation around the bathrooms," Hurley said.

Finding space for the expanded restrooms — there are 10 stalls in the women's room and a mix of stalls and urinals in the men's room — was one of the renovation's biggest design conundrums, Kennedy said.

The pieces fell into place when Fencl proposed stadium seating for the Davis's front two theaters.

The elevated seating configuration created pockets underneath, and Kennedy had his solution.

"We turned air space into floor space," he said, with the bathrooms situated below the last three rows of screening room seats.

Two family bathrooms, where the old women's bathroom once stood, were added in part because of Fencl's personal experience as the father of three girls.

"I always had to figure out how to take my daughters into the bathroom," he explained.


Dinner and a movie

With the addition of Carbon Arc Bar & Board, the Davis becomes not just a movie house, but an entertainment center, Fencl said.

Intended to both complement the Davis and operate independently, Carbon Arc was designed to serve patrons with a wide range of needs — from moviegoers grabbing a drink before or after a flick to families enjoying a sit-down dinner.

The challenge for Kennedy was to take a string of chopped-up storefronts — once the home of La Bocca Della Verita restaurant and Ravenswood Used Books — unify them into a single contiguous entity called Carbon Arc, and tie the restaurant to the theater.

He accomplished much of that by knocking down walls — after first consulting with structural engineers to make sure the apartments above were still fully supported.

In many ways, the team had greater creative freedom with the restaurant than the theater — a mural featuring characters like Shrek and Yoda didn't have to conform to 1920s standards — but the National Park Service still placed a number of restrictions on Carbon Arc's construction.

"We wanted to make a straight storefront, the National Park Services wanted recesses," consistent with the building's original appearance, Kennedy said.

The park service won, even thought that meant giving up some room for restaurant seating.

"We even have a recess in the kitchen," Kennedy said.

Among the bigger challenges posed by the park service: The original storefront ceilings were set 3 feet back from the windows along the sidewalk on Lincoln Avenue. The Carbon Arc team was told to do the same.

Hurley's response: "Let's make it a piece of art."

Her team came up with the idea of a tiered ceiling, which not only met the park service requirement but provided room to hide heating and cooling equipment while adding visual interest to boot.

"Kudos to everybody for working together to ask, 'What's the right solution?'" Hurley said. "It wasn't always the cheapest and easiest."

What's out is in

Patrons who belly up to Carbon Arc's bar are actually enjoying outdoor seating — in the sense that the bar is situated where a breezeway used to exist (above, left).

Kennedy's plan added 13 feet to Carbon Arc's depth by demolishing the storefronts' rear walls and essentially annexing the strip of outdoor space that used to separate the storefronts from the Davis. 

One of these things is not like the others

[Facebook/Kennedy Mann Architecture; DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

The interior of the Davis has been restored to 1920s art deco elegance, but the theater's entry remains trapped in 1950s kitsch.

The orange and red tiles are a needle scratch, and no one knows that better than Kennedy.

Photos of the original facade indicate there were once stained glass windows above the doors and terra cotta along the sides.

Unlike the fortunate discovery of ceiling detail in the auditorium, the restoration process revealed the stained glass was long gone, and close examination of the tile suggested the terra cotta had been stripped away, too.

"There are too many signs it had been taken off," Kennedy said. "It would have been gorgeous if the terra cotta was there. We don't think it is."

The National Park Service actually approved of the decision to leave the tile in place — removing it would have been cost-prohibitive if nothing lay underneath — given how long it's been part of the building.

At this point in the Davis' life span, the tile's "been up for longer than it hadn't," Kennedy said.

Above and beyond

People's perception at the Davis and Carbon Arc ultimately will be the sum of dozens of parts, some of which won't register with patrons on a conscious level.

There are the hand-painted theater signs, which in their imperfection are truer to the Davis's original roots than manufactured signs would have been, Hurley said.

The carpet in the lobby features a larger pattern than the one in the theaters, as opposed to other way around, to give the theater's entrance the illusion of additional height and width. The smaller pattern "would read as busier and feel smaller" if used in the lobby, she said.

"People want to know you thought through every part of the experience," Hurley said.

Perhaps the most unique element can be found on the walls of Carbon Arc's bathrooms.

"The Davis is the Davis — it has its identity," Hurley said. "Carbon Arc is the new kid. It just felt like, 'How can we tell that story more?'"

Taking their cues from the restaurant's name, which references a type of lamp that lit early film projectors, members of the design team began searching for carbon arc blueprints.

After coming across images in the public domain, the next step was to turn them into a pattern, which was made into custom wallpaper.

"This wallpaper is nowhere else in the world," Hurley said. "That shows the love we had."

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