NEW BEDFORD — It’s fitting that the Zeiterion’s multi-million-dollar renovation project will blend a restoration of its historic beauty with modernization of sound, lighting and patron amenities.
After all, the building at 684 Purchase St. turns 100 this year, and its many supporters – including the Z’s dedicated fundraising organizers – see the finished project providing superlative entertainment, education and community events to the region for the next 100 years.
The project’s estimated pricetag is $31 million, and construction is scheduled to begin in September and last 12 to 14 months.
During that time, The Z, New Bedford Symphony Orchestra and New Bedford Festival Theatre will continue performances in different city venues, with locations and scheduling still being formulated.
“We are taking a 100-year-old building, maintaining all of the beautiful features, the historic beauty, but bringing it to current, state-of-the-art functionality,” said Rosemary Gill, Zeiterion president and CEO.
Those efforts are being made possible through award-winning Boston design firm Wilson Butler Architects, which specializes in venerable theaters like the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. The building — built in 1923 for vaudeville — was the last of 17 theaters to open downtown in that era at a cost in today’s dollars of $12 million.
“Anybody who hears about the plans or sees them or dives into them just gets blown away,” Gill said. “It’s very exciting.”
The city-owned structure “is a contributing building to our historic district and the space has a historic preservation lien on it so no matter what we do we have to meet the standards of rehabilitation and restoration that are outlined by the state,” said Zeiterion Senior Director of Development Nicole Downing Merusi.
“The fact that it’s historic is both wonderful and challenging,” Gill said. “That’s its truest asset, but anyone who’s ever done historic work knows how challenging it is.”
The exterior will harken back to its glamourous look of yesteryear, and provide a guiding beacon to generations of new visitors.
Permanent jewelry?:Fairhaven metalsmith introduces latest trend to the SouthCoast
Gill said tourists – and even visitors from surrounding communities – can occasionally be overheard as they walk down Union Street saying, “Where is The Z?”
The restoration work will include returning the marquee to the main entrance of the theater with a nod to the original 1923 design, as well as a smaller marquee over the box office entrance, Merusi said. Large two-story arched windows to the front of the building will also be brought back to their historic look.
“We haven’t had any type of signage on the exterior of the building in many, many years,” Gill said. “To bring that back there will be a beautiful awning over the front entrance where the lobby is. And then, over the box office area, and it will be lighted with LED lights. It will really create what I believe to be a new landmark for the downtown, a beacon.”
The auditorium will be returned to its original historic look, as well, from the color scheme (which took some hands-on research to uncover) and plaster to the painted friezes and silk tapestries adorning the walls.Seating will be reconfigured to the correct pitch for today’s ADA handicap-accessibility requirements, and will add 80 or so seats to the current 1,200 capacity, Merusi said.
The auditorium’s seating, lighting and sound will be enhanced to state of the art. “It will be more comfortable. It will sound amazing. It will be a really wonderful experience. It will launch us into the next 100 years,” Gill said.
Make some plans:Spend your Valentine’s Day weekend at these SouthCoast events.
The work will also amplify more than the sound system.
The structure’s underutilized space will be made productive with the help of Wilson Butler Architects.
“This project is going to activate those areas in a really tremendous way,” said Gill. “And one of these is the Speakeasy.”
The Speakeasy lounge will be developed in the structure’s basement, with a capacity just under 100, Merusi said. It will be able to host small performances, community gatherings, rentals, lectures, parties, and film presentations in a more intimate space.
The building will have dedicated education space for the first time, Gill said, though the Z already provides up to 20,000 students (not counting the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra or Festival Theatre educational programs) per year with education in the performing arts.
“On the third floor of the building, above the lobby area, we will have a movement studio, and a classroom,” Gill said.
The main floor lobby space will be expanded where the concessions are currently. Merusi added, “The space we use as a multi-purpose space right now that has the doorway at the corner of Spring and Purchase, all of that becomes one big, expanded lobby space and will have a dedicated bar.”
The restrooms will be greatly increased in size. The women’s restroom will actually double in size, and the men’s will be moved up from the basement. There will also be a second-floor lounge, connected to the lobby by a grand staircase.
Ongoing fundraising efforts tap several different sources, Gill said, including city and state funding, both state and federal historic tax credits that are reimbursements based on qualified rehabilitation work, and philanthropy.
Mayor Jon Mitchell has announced the city is providing $5 million in ARPA funds, and the state is providing $2 million through ARPA. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito dropped by Jan. 6 with the state award, which was higher than anticipated.
State Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, and state Rep. Tony Cabral, D-New Bedford, who were instrumental in securing that funding, also attended. An additional $400,000 in state tax credit money was also recently received.
Cabral said, “I’m thrilled that the redevelopment of this historic theater is underway, and I’m extremely proud to play a part in bringing this project to life.”
He added, “I will continue to fight for funding for the Zeiterion and I am hopeful that the new administration will help the state match or even surpass the local contribution.”
Winter blues setting in?These SouthCoast activities are sure to get you out of the house.
Montigny said, “We’ve continued to deliver significant support year-after-year to help the theater grow into a driving force behind New Bedford’s arts and cultural renaissance. Now, we are delivering a multi-million-dollar state investment for an exciting renovation that will leverage private capital and infuse more energy into our recovering downtown, which will benefit the whole city in terms of job creation and increased revenues. I don’t think any of us serving on the original board in the ’80s could have planned a better outlook for this historic venue.”
“The organization is so grateful to the community,” Gill said. “We could not do this without their support, without the support of our delegation, without incredible corporate and individual donor support. It has really been a community effort. That’s what’s going to make it all the sweeter.”
And it’s a wise investment into the building that was “saved from the wrecking ball” 40 years ago by visionaries that included former Mayor John Bullard, Gill said. The nonprofit Zeiterion Theatre Inc. was created at that time.
It’s estimated that the Z currently generates $10 million in annual economic impact for the city and region. It attracts 75,000 to 100,000 patrons per year.
Z activities also support about 180 jobs, and 15 full-time additional employees are envisioned. The number of construction jobs is estimated in the 300 to 400 range.
Project plans began in 2018, and Z supporters were able to pursue them and persevere during the pandemic, which closed the theater’s doors for 19 months.
Asked if the task at hand ever appeared “daunting,” Gill said with a smile, “It is daunting at every point. It is a complex project where the goal post seems to move frequently.”
That includes rising construction costs that have forced them to “reset and sharpen their pencils,” Gill said.
But the effort is worth it for a lot of reasons.
“It’s an important project for the downtown. It’s important for the region, for the community. It’s important for artists. It’s important for economic vitality. It’s important for the life and happiness and culture of our people in every way. It’s a building that can’t be lost,” Gill said.
And while fundraising efforts continue, the goal line is coming into sight.
There is one potential downside, though.
This will be a very tough act to follow in 2123 when it’s time for the Z’s next renovation project to get underway.