NORWALK, Conn. — History has been unfolding in front of Frank Farricker’s eyes as piece after piece has been removed from what has been called The Regent, The Norwalk Theater, The Globe Theater and The Roxy.
“Now it looks like progress, right?” Farricker said Friday, looking toward the now cavernous interior space, a decidedly different look from what most recently served as a dance club, with little storefronts facing Wall Street. “… It hasn’t been like this in 100 years, just open like this.”
The place has been gutted down to its wooden beams, brick walls, stage and proscenium. The basement under the stage has been cleared out – it was necessary to cut a hole in the stage to remove oil tanks and other items – and will become dressing rooms. There was a bonus: a “whole basement” toward the front of the building, “which was marvelous because, as you can imagine, space is at a premium around here,” Farricker said.
Farricker, chairman of the Greenwich Democratic Town Committee and chairman of the Connecticut Lottery Corporation Board of Directors, is the developer of what is slated to become The Wall Street Theater.
The transformation of the National Historic Landmark to what is described on the theater’s website as “the first next-generation performance space in Connecticut to provide theater enthusiasts live shows, interactive entertainment, digital productions, art space, state-of-the-art digital streaming technology and a community arena in which to play” is planned to be partially funded with tax dollars, but Farricker hasn’t completed the paperwork yet.
Farricker on Friday confirmed Republican Common Councilman Doug Hempstead’s assertion that Farricker hadn’t yet turned in the final documentation to qualify for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 108 loan, but said it is intentional. He was waiting for the election, for a new Council, he said.
Yes, that will make a difference, he said, without elaborating.
The theater was originally opened in 1915. Surprises for Farricker and company have included little things like stairs from the under-stage basement to what was an orchestra pit. and one major thing – the strength of the building.
“The structural engineers are astounded,” Farricker said. “They kept on saying, ‘This building can’t hold anything. Yeah … You’re going to have to put steel everywhere.’ No. The place is just amazingly constructed. It’s amazingly strong. Even after years of neglect and all of that, it’s still fabulously well-constructed.”
There were “massive pipes” over the stage and the fly, which has been removed, he said.
“The rigging system will go up 50 feet,” Farricker said. “Initially there will be 12 rigging points for various backdrops and such, but it will be expandable to 24 so we can have as high-quality a rigging setup that is reasonably possible in this building. But (the space over the stage) goes well beyond 50 feet.”
The 1915-vintage plaster was “loaded with asbestos, as was custom of the time”; all the plaster has been removed and the exterior walls are down to the brick, which is four courses deep. While that aesthetic appeals to a modern sensibility, it will be covered by plaster, based on input from the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office.
The goal is to restore the theater to its pre-talkie motion picture phase, and “Back then, exposed brick was considered low class: You didn’t have any money,” Farricker said. “They would never have had exposed brick. They said, as a theater, it’s an acoustical nightmare. … I was like, ‘damn that costs money.’”
Bricks became popular in the ’80s, he said.
“An old real estate developer told me exposed brick became popular because that was selling people on the idea that they didn’t have to do something was great,” Farricker said.
There was a pile of bricks in the middle of the theater on Friday.
“We are saving the bricks. We are going to polish them up and sell little mementos,” Farricker said.
The restoration will involve “everything from the color scheme to mural restoration, to almost every aspect, the front façade,” Farricker said.
“We are trying to go back to 1927. I mean, you can’t have everything ideal like that, but that guides the era we are looking for: just before the movies, when it was still a vaudeville house,” he said.
“It was opened by this Irish entrepreneur who designed everything in a way that was supposed to be reflective of mythological Ireland,” Farricker said.
Restorers visited the theater Thursday to examine the proscenium and said it wouldn’t be difficult to bring it back to its original beauty, he said. There are nail holes, but they will be easy to fix, and the gold leaf, which is wood, can be repaired.
As the theater changed from a vaudeville house to a movie theater to a dance club, changes were made in the cheapest way possible, he said – which is good, because things were just covered up rather than removed. For instance, when an air conditioning system was installed, a hole was cut into a mural to put in a vent.
“Lots of stuff that we never expected,” Farricker said. “Not that it’s expensive, but little things that make the difference.”
The murals were professionally removed and restored, he said.
“It’s a great mystery to us why certain things were done,” Farricker said, commenting on the concrete floor, flat on grade.
“There are so many cool things that we never would have figured we’d be able to touch. Cool little things that when there was no sound and lights that they used to do to project sound,” he said.
That includes holes near the stage, and a hole to allow sound into the basement, where performers were waiting to go onstage.
The area for the movie projector, above the balcony, was an addition, he said.
“In 1928 there was this arc lamp and it would literally shoot electricity onto the screen. So they had to build it as a totally fireproof box, back in the day, where it remained,” Farricker said.
Farricker expects to open in late spring. When that happens it will be part of the rebirth of Wall Street, Mayor Harry Rilling said earlier this fall.
“You are not going to see the same Wall Street three years from now. You are going to see an amazing, amazing transition of people investing in this downtown area, which is what we are trying to accomplish,” Rilling said.
With the theater and the construction of Head of the Harbor South and POKO Partners’ Wall Street Place, in addition to Waypointe and Avalon, “There are going to be some growing pains that we are going to have to work with,” he said. “What I am trying to do is, Norwalk needs to show that we have skin in the game. We have to invest in this area, also. If we expect people to invest in Wall Street, we have to be prepared to invest.”
Government leaders need to figure out if that means tax incremental financing, tax abatement or capital improvements, he said. Capital improvements would include streetscaping, sidewalks, road, street light and a façade improvement program.
The railing around Freese Park needs to be replaced and the Wall Street master plan should be tweaked, a process that has already begun with the Redevelopment Agency, he said. Connecting Wall Street with Washington Street and South Main Street is also important.
Farricker said work on the “not inexpensive roof” will begin early this week.
The roof, which will feature steel and “different membranes,” will “have all sort of acoustic properties” and be energy efficient, for what will become a LEED certified building, he said. The heating and air conditioning systems will go on the roof, which will be a major improvement on past practice as it frees up space inside.
“Then it won’t be wet in here anymore,” he said. “Then we’ll start working on the inside. Hopefully they will come in, carpenters, rebuilding all the sections, sidewalls, opera boxes and things like that. … It will be a hive of activity in a couple of months, if not even that, maybe a month or so.”