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Mindful Restoration at Hillside Theater

Elizabeth Maske, December 22nd, 2022
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Frank Lloyd Wright attends a performance (seated far right) in the Hillside Theater in 1958. Image courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

Restoration continues on the 1932 Hillside Theater, a project announced by Taliesin Preservation and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in 2018 following funding from The National Park Service. The historic theater once boasted regular productions performed by Frank Lloyd Wright Fellowship members, in line with Wright’s holistic approach to education. Soon the theater will be revived to its former glory, with public performances expected in 2024.

One major project step involved pouring a new concrete floor in the basement. This new slab rests next to older slabs, with a foam barrier delineating the scope of the project.

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Hewson points to a foam barrier delineating the scope of the project.

On the west side of this line in the sand are four newly renovated greenrooms; on the east side is a portion of the basement to be addressed in future preservation projects. While the barrier divides the space, it also has a practical purpose: to minimize future access issues by ensuring the two concrete slabs remain detached. According to Ryan Hewson, Director of Preservation at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, “Though seemingly inconsequential, mindful considerations significantly ease later interventions.” This level of intentionality around design speaks to the quality of the Hillside Theater restoration.

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Foam between the concrete flooring and stone pillars.

New concrete flooring in the basement visually transforms the site, yet hidden structures elevate the space to modern standards. Expansion joints in the concrete are strategically tucked under the framing to echo Wright’s seamless planes while preventing future cracks. Foam between the concrete flooring and stone pillars prevents material abrasion with minimal visual interference. While these choices align with modern practices and are technically easier to maintain, they also lessen confusion for future conservators trying to distinguish between authentic and Wright-inspired spaces.  

 

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A Microlam beam next to an original beam.

Central to preservation at Hillside Theater is the practice of actively differentiating modern construction from historical work. Though Wright would have typically poured and painted the new concrete floors in the basement, the preservation team will instead stain the flooring red. Modern beams have been installed next to the originals so that if walls are opened in the future, there is evidence detailing how the original space was once supported.

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Embedding detailed evidence in the stage floor aids future restoration efforts. 

Although not part of the original plan, the historic stage floor framing needed to be removed. The historic framing was oriented at an unusual angle, making installing new electrical, HVAC, and plumbing lines difficult. To ensure that knowledge of the original structure is not lost, the team has inserted a reference board with a notation showing the orientation and size of the preexisting framing. By embedding detailed evidence within Hillside’s skeleton, the team significantly aids future restoration efforts. 

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Hewson shows different limewash swatches tested on a plaster wall in the theater.

Continuing the Taliesin tradition of learning by doing, the preservation team has often had to experiment to effectively replicate the past. The theater’s lime-washed plaster walls have undergone so many iterations that they have proven difficult to color match. Over time, walls were exposed to varied lighting, and spaces were repeatedly patched and painted in different colors, making it challenging to determine what color was initially intended for the space. To resolve this, several samples were created from varying pigment combinations, and a winning mixture was selected. The resulting wash will bring cohesiveness to the space. 

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Hewson and Dodds show the original and replica grout texture.

Another complexity faced in the process was replicating the liquid grout texture on the stone floors in the foyer. The team learned from oral histories that the liquid effect was created by pouring the grout into the grooves between the stones using a watering can with a cut nozzle. After trial and error, the team found that adding casein to the grout helped it set faster, allowing them to replicate the original effect.

At the heart of the project is a difficult balance with replicating unskilled labor. “Originally, these spaces were built by Fellows who were learning, and now they are being restored by experts,” Hewson recounts. “Though it can feel counterintuitive, to effectively restore these student-constructed spaces, professionals must let go of some of their training so that the resulting work blends seamlessly into the rest of the space.” Once more, the Taliesin mantra of learning by doing prevails.