The Kimmel Center will renovate two of its public spaces

Kimmel Center's David Thiele (left) and Russell Hess check progress of the rooftop Hamilton Garden. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Kimmel Center's David Thiele (left) and Russell Hess check progress of the rooftop Hamilton Garden. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer (Kimmel Center's David Thiele (left) and Russell Hess)
Posted: April 02, 2012

The Kimmel Center is getting a beauty makeover, its most substantial since initial construction ended after opening day in 2001.

On the heels of a recent acoustical adjustment to Verizon Hall, the Kimmel is renovating two major quasi-public spaces in hopes of becoming more hospitable and profitable.

Work on the rooftop garden is under way. Ficus trees atop the Perelman Theater have been cleared to make way for a new glass-and-steel structure - a large glass box within the larger glass bubble - that will shield users from the extreme temperature swings that have rendered the space largely unusable.

A new restaurant is still in the design stage, but its operator signed a contract with the Kimmel last week. Jose Garces, the Ecuadoran American restaurant mogul - soon to have 16 restaurants and one taco truck in his stable - is creating a new food- and-drink establishment in the ground-floor space formerly occupied by the gift shop. A culinary concept has not been established, he said. But already, architects are planning the space to extend four feet onto the Spruce Street sidewalk and have a separate entrance to be open even when Kimmel theaters are dark.

The restaurant - nameless as yet, with an estimated 80 to 100 seats and a bar - is expected to open around the first of the year, although Garces' company will take charge of food service in the arts center, including the rooftop space, in June.

"It's iconic. I think the architecture is unique, it stands out, it's a special place," Garces said. "And I felt like I could enhance the experience."

He would not say how long his contract with the Kimmel runs, citing legalities with a business partner he declined to name, but he said the restaurant would aim to "activate that area to a bit of a younger demographic as well as the current clientele, which is a bit tricky from a concept point of view."

The tab for dinner would likely run between $40 and $65 per person, he said.

These two renovation projects, plus the acoustical adjustments, carry a hefty price tag: $14 million. Half will be covered with a grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a major funder of the Kimmel's original construction, and half from other donors.

The Kimmel has assembled a long list of capital improvements, but these two were chosen now to help bring in cash. The center has worked out a revenue-sharing arrangement based on gross receipts with Garces, Kimmel president and chief executive Anne Ewers said, and the improved climate on the rooftop perch is expected to produce previously unattainable rental income.

"We get about a thousand inquiries a year [to rent the space], and we could do a total of eight last year," Ewers said, adding that forecasts call for an increase in revenue of $400,000 a year.

Revenue is more critical than ever at the Kimmel, which has made a series of rent concessions to its resident companies, including the Philly Pops and Opera Company of Philadelphia.

Both changes are also being looked to as a way to add vibrancy to the performing arts center, whose vast dome often encloses an abundance of eerie peace and quiet during the day and on evenings when no performances are taking place in Verizon Hall, the Perelman Theater, or Innovation Studio.

Waiting in the wings is a more ambitious renovation conceived by KieranTimberlake that would move the box office, realign the two large staircases so they would be parallel to and hug the outside of Verizon Hall, strike the black cube at Broad and Spruce, and make other substantial architectural changes.

Also still to be solved is the question of how to clean the exterior of the complex's glass superstructure. A previous system of pulleys has rusted, and the glass has grown streaked and cloudy.

In the meantime, the Garces Group restaurant - which replaces the Wolfgang Puck/Restaurant Associates partnership - is once again being positioned as a generator of activity, and the "destination" restaurant that its predecessor, Cadence, on the second tier, hoped to be when the Kimmel opened in 2001.

Bringing the restaurant to ground level and making it part of the cityscape should make it more viable than Cadence, Kimmel leaders say. Vice president of facilities and operations David Thiele said the restaurant would be open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

"Part of the space will be a finishing kitchen, so people can watch," he said.

The view from the 6,400-square-foot rooftop garden - south to the stadiums, east to the bridges of the Delaware River - was often unfettered for anyone who took the glass elevator up to the space. In its new form, access will be more restricted, because it stands to be rented more often.

And the view?

"The intent is designing a crystal jewel-box sitting on top of the Perelman, and that the box is transparent and invisible," said Michael L. Prifti, BLT Architects' managing partner. Its view out is obstructed, he said, when a system of louvers is deployed to keep out sun and heat. Theatrical lighting is being installed to provide for a variety of effects to be seen both by users and passersby at street level.

Acoustical isolators ensure that revelers on the roof won't be heard down below in the Perelman, even during middle movements of Schubert sonatinas. The terrace floor sits on a system of 124 spring supports.

Making waves is in fact the goal of the restaurant - specifically, "adding vibrancy to Spruce Street, which is one of the main failings of the existing building," said Richard L. Maimon, the KieranTimberlake architect working with interior designer Marguerite Rodgers on the restaurant. "The goal over all is to create a restaurant and bar that are attractive to Kimmel Center patrons and with a broader audience in Philadelphia, to increase the use of the building."

Extending the restaurant, both inside the Kimmel and out onto the sidewalk, is "the first of several improvements along Spruce Street that are envisioned," he said.

"It really realizes the initial vision of the Kimmel Center as a venue not only for performing arts, but also as a venue for socializing and being out within the artistic environment," Maimon said. "This is a step in that direction."


 


Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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