Majestic Maintenance Show Goes On

October 30, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — The newly renovated and renamed Meijer Majestic Theatre is a gift, said Bruce Tinker, executive and artistic director of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, but the structure is more complicated than it looks.

The theater is actually made up of four buildings that have been “knit” together over the years. The structures were built over a 25-year period: the Wenham in 1878, the Botsford in 1892, the Hull in 1880 and the Majestic in 1903.

The first, second and third floors of the buildings are connected, while the fourth, fifth and sixth floors are not. The Majestic “wing” has only three floors, while the Hull has five floors, the Botsford has six and the Wenham has three. Some of the floors between the structures are connected with a variety of steps and ramps, as the difference in floor height is sometimes as much as 30 inches.

“The level change can be quite severe,” Tinker said.

The construction styles of the four old buildings vary, but primarily they have a masonry exterior and a wood interior. There were gaps of up to 14 inches between the buildings, and some interior walls are now two to three feet thick where the buildings have been connected.

The entire structure is 80,000 square feet, with about 65,000 square feet being utilized. The remaining space is not being used because the cost of making it accessible was too expensive, Tinker said.

The massive renovation, which started in July 2005 and was completed in September 2006, couldn’t have come at a better time, Tinker said.

“We were really at a precipice with a lot of the backbone systems of the facility,” he said. “This was really a wonderful gift at a really critical juncture in the history of the building.”

During the renovation, the majority of the electrical and mechanical systems were simplified. Where before there were roof-top heating systems, there is now a heat pump in the Wenham building that will eventually also provide heat for the Botsford building. The Majestic and Hull each have a primary heating system, but have the infrastructure to be replaced by the main heat pump system.

“It’s an efficient way to heat and cool,” Tinker said of the heat pump.

Now instead of having heating maintenance take place on the roof, often during cold and inclement weather, the care and maintenance for the systems can be done inside, which also will prevent damage from the elements. While the cooling tower remains outside, Tinker said it primarily needs maintenance only during the warm summer months.

Tinker said heating and cooling the large performance space presents a problem, but the stage area is heated with a steam pipe system, which also creates a cyclic airflow in the scenery storage area above the stage. While it is nice for the actors, Tinker said scene changes require timing and patience in order to meet cues while the pieces are moving.

While there is a custodian on staff, Tinker said many of the staff and volunteers clean their spaces or communal spaces when they are done using them, specifically vacuuming and other light maintenance. There is also a cleaning service that comes every other day that primarily cares for the restrooms in the lobby.

“We’re still new enough in it, we’re just now realizing what needs to happen,” he said.

Following the renovation, there has been an excessive dust problem throughout the building, Tinker said. Some of the rooms had not been used in more than 50 years. 

“It’s a very invasive renovation,” he said.

Besides the maintenance of the building, Tinker said one of the biggest challenges in managing the facility is allowing for its varied uses: as performance hall, acting school, practice space and more.

“People have different expectations for the different ways they use the building,” he said. “We’re a community organization; we want to be open to all of the public all of the time.”

To help facilitate the different uses, many of which take place after traditional business hours, Tinker said the theater now has a keyless security access system, along with a video camera and an electronic log.

“This way, we can log everybody that is in the building,” he said.

Tinker said the transition to the new security system has been relatively seamless, and it helps those who are in the structure at night feel safer.

Along with updating the systems, Tinker said the renovation has also improved the look of the performance space by restoring the original plaster molding. The molding has been embellished with gold and copper leaf and covered by layers of glaze to protect it. With the original molding now in view, Tinker said it draws the audiences’ attention to the stage in an intentional way — the way the theater was meant to look.

“They don’t build theaters like this anymore.”    

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