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Imagining a Roofless Warehouse as a Theater

For St. Ann’s Warehouse, the experimental theater based in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, breaking ground is nothing new. Launched in a Brooklyn Heights Gothic church 33 years ago, the avant-garde arts organization is known for its eclectic imports and fusions of plays, music and spoken word.

Now, the theater has broken ground in a different way, beginning the conversion of the Civil War-era Tobacco Warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront to create the first permanent home for St. Ann’s.

“I feel like we’re starting out new again,” Susan Feldman, the theater’s founding artistic director, said last week after the building project’s formal launch.

Once used for tobacco inspections, the 1860 warehouse has long been a roofless relic with its brick walls providing a dramatic backdrop for performances and public recreation. Standing adjacent to the Brooklyn Bridge Park, the 27,500-square-foot structure had been a tantalizing proposition for St. Ann’s, which has been using temporary housing around the corner from the warehouse since 2000.

“We were already into this notion of nontraditional space,” Ms. Feldman said. After Polish theater company TR Warszawa’s production of “Macbeth” was staged in the empty warehouse in 2008, she imagined how her organization might use the space as a permanent home. When the Brooklyn Bridge Park, which holds and administers the lease to the warehouse, solicited proposals for adaptive reuse, Ms. Feldman threw a glove into the ring.

For inspiration, Ms. Feldman recalled a visit to London, where she had been impressed by how the Tate Modern, the Royal National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe Theater created a seamless cultural hub along the Thames River, generating activity day and night. Jonathan Marvel, one of the lead architects for the Brooklyn project, traveled with Ms. Feldman for a followup visit to London. Over a beer at the National Theatre’s pop-up cafe, “We saw the stream of people and thought this is what it’s going to be like in 10 years in Brooklyn Bridge Park when the structures have matured and businesses and restaurants are in full swing,” Mr. Marvel said.

But, then, it almost didn’t happen.

St. Ann’s 2010 proposal to redevelop the site was accepted but then suspended when local community groups challenged the authority of the development corporation and the National Park Service to remove the warehouse site from public use.

A settlement on converting the structure was approved in May with an agreement to add 38,000 square feet to the park from space previously used by municipal agencies for parking and storage.

“We always wanted to adaptively reuse this building and we were very clear that we thought cultural or community use would enhance the park experience,” said Regina Myer, president of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Ms. Myer estimates that between 1 million and 1.5 million people use the park each year.

To encourage visitation from park users, the design for the new St. Ann’s has multiple access ways to the 3,750-square-foot lobby through the park and the side courtyard, even during the day or when no performances are scheduled.

“I think the magic is when you stand inside [the lobby] and you have all these beautiful frames and views of the world outside,” Mr. Marvel said.

Masonry arches in the double-height entry will allow such views as well as a long, open corridor running from front to back of the 18,000 square-foot rectangular-shaped warehouse building.

With the exception of a two-story divider containing offices, dressing rooms, restrooms and a 1,000-square-foot community room, everything about the interior will be open and adaptable—from the 700-seat flexible performance space to the lobby, which will have movable elements to create larger or smaller spaces as needed.

A highlight of the theater is the 7½-foot glass brick wall to be built at roof level, peeking out above the 24-foot brick walls surrounding the new building. During the day, the glass will admit light; at night, the light from within the theater will illuminate the glass, giving the illusion of a glowing box set atop the historic structure.

But the scene-stealer could well be an open-air irregular triangle on the west side of the building. It will be transformed into a garden courtyard designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the firm that also designed Brooklyn Bridge and Hudson River parks. The warehouse area will remain roofless with views of the Brooklyn Bridge overhead, and open to public visitors using original arched doorways on New Dock Street and through the park.

“We think the garden had a theatrical quality about it…in the way that it’s encased and [with] this heroic scale with the bridge,” said Mr. Valkenburgh.

The garden will feature a scrim of small trees to help soften the industrial elements. Mr. Valkenburgh is researching species that are the most saline-resistant, a lesson learned after the park lost about 60 trees as a result of superstorm Sandy.

The architects also made adjustments to the design post-Sandy, moving the mechanicals to the rooftop and incorporating water-resistant materials on the ground level. The theater will be otherwise sustainable, built to LEED Silver certification standards.

“We’re hopeful about bringing this [historic] building into the 21st century,” Ms. Feldman said.

The project budget is now $27 million, of which $10 million is to be contributed by the city and $11 million has been raised so far through private donations. “We’re in good shape,” said Ms. Feldman.

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