NEW BEDFORD — The Zeiterion’s multi-million dollar renovation will restore its historic beauty with modern sound, lighting and patronage.
After all, the building at 684 Purchase St. is turning 100 this year, and its many supporters — including Z’s dedicated fundraising organizers — have seen the completed project provide the area with top-notch entertainment for the next 100 years , education and community events.
The project has an estimated price of $31 million and construction is scheduled to start in September and last 12 to 14 months.
During this time, The Z, the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra and the New Bedford Festival Theater will continue to perform at various city venues, with locations and schedules still being worked out.
“We’re building a 100-year-old building that retains all of its beautiful character and historic beauty, but brings it to life with state-of-the-art functionality,” said Zeiterion President and CEO Rosemary Gill.
These efforts were made possible by the award-winning Boston-based design firm Wilson Butler Architects, which specializes in historic theaters such as the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. Constructed in 1923 for vaudeville, the last of 17 theaters to open downtown during that era, the building cost $12 million in today’s dollars.
“Anyone who hears or sees these programs or digs into them is going to be blown away,” Gill said. “It’s very exciting.”
The city-owned building “is a contribution building to our historic district, and that space has a historic preservation lien, so whatever we do, we have to meet state-mandated standards for restoration and restoration,” 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 done historic work knows how challenging it can be.”
The exterior will recall the glamorous façade of yesteryear and serve as a guiding light for generations of new visitors.
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Gill said tourists — even those from surrounding neighborhoods — can occasionally be heard walking down Union Street saying, “Where’s The Z?”
Restoration will include restoring the marquee to the theater’s main entrance, with a nod to the original 1923 design, and installing a smaller marquee above the box office entrance, Merusi said. The large two-story arched windows at the front of the building will also be restored to their historic appearance.
“For many, many years, we didn’t have any type of signage on the exterior of the building,” Gill said. “To bring it back, there will be a beautiful awning over the main entrance where the lobby is. Then, over the box office area, it will be illuminated with LED lights. I think this will really create a new landmark for downtown , is a lighthouse.”
The auditorium will also be restored to its original historic appearance, from the color scheme (which took some hands-on research to discover) and plaster to the painted friezes and silk tapestries that adorn the walls. Seats will be reconfigured to the correct pitch to meet today’s ADA handicap accessibility requirements and will add 80 or so seats to the current capacity of 1,200, Merusi said.
The seating, lighting and sound in the auditorium will be upgraded to state-of-the-art. “It’s going to be more comfortable. It’s going to sound great. It’s going to be a really nice experience. It’s going to take us into the next 100 years,” Gill said.
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This work will also amplify beyond the sound system.
With the help of Wilson Butler Architects, the structure’s underutilized spaces will become productive.
“This project is going to activate these fields in a really huge way,” Gill said. “One of them is Speakeasy.”
The Speakeasy lounge will be built in the basement of the building and will seat nearly 100 people, Merusi said. It will be able to host small performances, community gatherings, rentals, lectures, parties and film screenings in a more intimate space.
For the first time, the building will have a dedicated educational space, Gill said, though the Z already provides performing arts education to as many as 20,000 students a year (not counting the New Bedford Symphony or the Festival Theater education program).
“On the third floor of the building, above the lobby, we’ll have an exercise studio and a classroom,” Gill said.
The main floor lobby space will be expanded where the franchise is currently located. “The space we’re using now as a multipurpose space has doorways on the corner of Spring and Purchase, all of which has been turned into one large, extended lobby space and will have a dedicated bar,” Merusi added.
The bathroom area will be greatly increased. The women’s restroom will effectively double in size, while the men’s restroom will be moved up from the basement. There is also a lounge on the second floor, connected to the lobby by a grand staircase.
Gill said the ongoing fundraising effort draws on several different sources, including city and state funds, state and federal historic tax credits based on reimbursement for qualified restoration work, and philanthropic causes.
Mayor Jon Mitchell announced that the city will provide $5 million in ARPA funding, while the state will provide $2 million through ARPA. Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito received a higher-than-expected state award on January 6.
State Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, and State Rep. Tony Cabral, D-New Bedford, who were instrumental in securing the funding, were also in attendance. An additional $400,000 in state tax credit funds was recently received.
“I am delighted that the restoration of this historic theater is underway and I am extremely proud to have played a role in bringing this project to life,” said Cabral.
He added: “I will continue to fight for funding for the Zeiterion and I hope the new government will help the state to match or even exceed local contributions.”
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Montini said: “Year after year we continue to provide vital support to help the theater grow into the driving force behind New Bedford’s arts and cultural renaissance. Now, we are providing millions for an exciting transformation Dollars of state investment, this revamp will leverage private capital and inject more energy into our revitalizing downtown, which will benefit the entire city in terms of job creation and increased revenue. I don’t think we served the original board in the 80’s Anyone can plan a better future for this historic site.”
“The organization is very grateful to the community,” Gill said. “We couldn’t have done it without their support, without the support of our delegation, without the incredible support of corporate and individual donors. It’s really a community effort. It’s going to make it even sweeter.”
Gill said it was a smart investment in a building that was “saved from the wrecking ball” 40 years ago by visionaries including former Mayor John Bullard. The nonprofit Zeiterion Theater Inc. was created around that time.
Z currently has an estimated $10 million annual economic impact for the city and region. It attracts 75,000 to 100,000 customers a year.
The Z campaign also supports approximately 180 jobs and is expected to add 15 full-time employees. The number of construction jobs is estimated to be between 300 and 400.
Project plans began in 2018, and Z’s supporters were able to pursue and persevere during the pandemic, which kept theaters closed for 19 months.
Asked if the task at hand had ever seemed “daunting,” Gill said with a laugh, “It’s been daunting in every way. It’s a complex project and the goal seems to be moving a lot.”
That includes rising construction costs that have forced them to “readjust and sharpen their pencils,” Gill said.
But the effort is worth it for many reasons.
“It’s an important project downtown. It’s important to the region, it’s important to the community. It’s important to the artists. It’s important to the economic vitality. It’s important to the lives of our people, to their well-being and to our culture in every way. It’s It’s a building that can’t be lost,” Gill said.
While the fundraising campaign continues, the goal line is on the horizon.
However, there is a potential downside.
It’s going to be a pretty tough move when the Z’s next facelift starts in 2123.