Inspiration > A Magical Lobby

In 2006, Portsmouth’s Music Hall was designated by the U.S. Senate as “an American Treasure” in the National Save America’s Treasures Program established through the National Park Service. Since then, the staff at The Music Hall has embarked on an ambitious restoration plan; the latest phase is the completion of a spectacular new lobby, last September. “In a theater, you want something magical,” Executive Director Patricia Lynch said at the unveiling. “So many theaters make mistakes with their lobbies. I didn’t want a bank lobby. I wanted a magical place.”By all accounts, she got what she wished for, and then some. In January, the New Hampshire chapter of the American Institute of Architects awarded the lobby’s architect and builder a merit award for excellence in architecture, noting that the renovation “is in the tradition of classic theaters but addresses a current, real history, not a faux history. It is fun.”Embracing HistoryThe Music Hall’s old lobby was a “makeshift public space that patrons rushed through,” according to Mike Harvell, president of the board of trustees. In planning the renovation, the trustees and members of the facilities and restoration committee identified four challenges for the lobby: to continue the Beaux Art design of the auditorium; to showcase the theater’s history; to upgrade the amenities and make the building wheelchair accessible; and to be sustainable.The Music Hall hired designer Jason McLean—who specializes in synthesizing theatrical design with durability for high-traffic areas—to re-imagine the space. He worked closely with John Merkle, principal of TMS Architects in Portsmouth who has been the mastermind behind the different phases of The Music Hall’s renovation, and construction manager John DeStefano of DeStefano and Associates Inc. in Portsmouth. “The theater itself is referred to as ‘the old lady,’” McLean says. “But when I saw the lobby, my thought was that the old lady didn’t have any arms with which to reach out to patrons. I wanted to give her arms with the new lobby.”The Music Hall was built in 1878 at the height of the Victorian era by craftsmen from all over New England. Frederick Douglass once spoke from The Music Hall’s stage, as did Mark Twain; the Barrymores acted there, and Harry Houdini and John Philip Sousa performed. McLean wanted to express the theater’s rich history in his design and uses a musical metaphor to describe his process. “I was riffing on the different elements that I found here,” he says, “the Beaux Arts tradition, the suggestions of Art Deco and Art Nouveau, the maritime context and aquatic forms.”Showcasing the Area’s LandmarksConsequently, the lobby rewards inspection; everywhere you look is a thoughtful comment on the building’s history and surroundings. The custom wallpaper layers text from old playbills, programs and advertisements over old photographs. Portholes are used in the reproduction doors, in the boxes that cover the tops of the gilded Corinthian columns, and in the tops of the trash cans. There is steelwork along the beams that looks like the Eiffel Tower, but also references the Interstate 95 Piscataqua River Bridge and the cranes at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard that dot the city’s skyline. The curvy LED lighting in the ceiling changes colors to suit the mood of the programming, and resembles waves or gull’s wings.The new bathrooms are fantastical spaces that look like Beaux Art hobbit The box office is embraced by sinuous cast-bronze trees and vines, part of designer Jason McLean’s vision of creating a curvier, less linear space. The new concessions/coffee bar is made from Plexiglas® heated at very high temperatures and pushed out to form contours that manage to look like rock, water and air. grottoes. “People aren’t going to want to leave here,” an admirer said about the ladies room at the lobby’s unveiling. “Maybe they can put a comedian in here or something.” Stone, brick and mosaic tile were set by hand in a curvilinear pattern that mimics flowing water; echoes the curves of the lobby walls and lighting; and softens the angles of the building.Artifacts from the old lobby are embedded in the walls. There are granite shelves and gilt light fixtures; the ceilings of the restrooms, as well as the box office, are encased in a “fantasy forest” of cast bronze trees, branches and vines. The trees were made off-site in a twenty-five-step process that involves casting molds from real vegetation, which McLean carved out of the banks of the Mississippi River. (The three hundred pieces were then assembled on-site by staff members.)The Building ProcessIn order to create more space in the lobby, the builders had to jackhammer through rock ledge underneath the structure—seven hundred cubic yards of ledge, to be exact (enough to fill a Colonial home, basement to roof). This process took seven months to complete. The builders were able to work around the theater’s schedule so it never had to close, constructed temporary bathrooms and ran air cleaners constantly.Blasting out the ledge allowed the lobby to expand to 2,400 square feet. Merkle says once that space was carved out, the work that remained was essentially new construction.“Stabilizing the building envelope was the preservation work; also, the gutters had failed and the roof leaked, so those things needed to be repaired before we did anything else,” Merkle says. “Then it was a matter of developing an architectural design that reflected the grandeur of the theater but that was also fresh.”Merkle added a staircase from the ground floor box office to the subterranean restrooms and concession/coffee bar. Crews salvaged some bricks from the old structure. However, some original features—such as the deteriorating tile floor—needed to be sacrificed in order to meet standards.Despite all the changes, Lynch says The Music Hall’s purpose remains the same: “For a farm boy from rural New Hampshire in the late 1800s, coming here was a transporting experience, and that should still be the case for today’s harried worker who’s turned off his BlackBerry® for a moment of peace.”Annual Music Hall Kitchen TourOn Saturday, May 2, join the eighteenth annual Music Hall Kitchen Tour. Proceeds from the tour (the biggest fundraiser of the year) help support The Music Hall. Simply get a map and go at your own speed through Rye and North Hampton. The tour runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for Music Hall members, $23 for non-members and $25 if purchased the day of the event. Tickets can be purchased by calling 436-2400 or visiting