How a 7,000-ton Broadway theater was lifted 30 feet

If you’ve ever lost at Jenga by knocking down a tower after removing a block, you can appreciate what developers have accomplished at TSX Broadway, a hotel and entertainment complex in Times Square.

The developer of the 46-story building has managed to loosen the lower floors and raise them 30 feet without anything collapsing.

And what has risen is not just any section. It is the Palace Theatre, a home for Broadway shows that was designed by the architectural firm Kirchhoff & Rose in the Beaux-Arts style. The 14 million pound theatre, is a protected landmark, which means that the structure, from the stage to the balcony, had to be moved without so much as a crack in the delicate plaster that adorns the ceilings, arches and boxes.

“It’s been a great feeling to see it happen,” said Anthony J. Mazzo, president of the Urban Foundation/Engineering, who pulled off the heavy lifting using a system of jacks and telescoping beams he invented 30 years ago for a project involving a warehouse roof. in queens. “I feel like it has worked like a charm,” he added.

Even in a city known for its massive construction feats, the project was fraught with risks, from possible damage to the ornate interior to the possibility of the entire theater collapsing. But it was a crucial part of a $2.5 billion transformation of the building, which will include a 661-room hotel and an outdoor stage facing Times Square when it opens next year.

Since 1913, the 1,700-seat Palace has occupied most of the ground floor at West 47th Street and Broadway, drawing hundreds of visitors eight times a week to see musicals like “Annie,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “West Side Story.” “. But offering only live theater was choking off an even bigger source of revenue: the tens of millions of tourists who swarm Times Square in a typical year, eager to spend money at the shops.

Annual retail rents in Times Square, close to $2,000 per square foot, are generally among the highest in the country. The pandemic depressed the area, which drew just 35,000 visitors a day on weekends in the spring of 2020. But two years later, that number jumped to 300,000, according to the Times Square Alliance, a coalition working to improve and promote the district.

To tap into some of that potential revenue, L&L Holding, the lead developer of the TSX project, made arrangements with the theater’s owner, the Nederlander Organization, to elevate the Palace and fill the void with three floors of new retail space, part of a 10-story . of retail in the tower. The theater will have a new entrance on West 47th, as well as a new lobby, marquee and backstage area.

“It was essential for us to raise the theater to create the space, but also to unlock the potential of the theater, with all the things that would help it become a modern building,” said David Orowitz, CEO of L&L.

Urban Foundation had a playbook to follow. In 1998, he rolled the Beaux-Arts Empire Theater on West 42nd Street 170 feet to the west as part of a plan by developer Forest City Ratner to make way for retail. Today the building is the 25-screen AMC Empire theater with a twinkling marquee.

But at 7.4 million pounds, the Empire was half the weight of the Palace. Also, the tracks used to move the Empire basically sank into the ground below it, meaning the building had to be raised only a few inches, said Mazzo, who was also the engineer on that project.

Anyone who has ever changed a car tire using a strategically placed jack or roof rack may be familiar with how the Palace made its upward journey.

A team of three dozen workers first reinforced the theater by adding a six-foot-thick layer of concrete around the edge of the base, then sank 34 30-foot columns into the Manhattan bedrock below it. Fitting snugly into the columns, like gloved hands, were smaller beams that could be moved up and down like parts of a telescope. Four hydraulic jacks resembling large paint cans with arms extending upwards were placed under the collars of each beam.

When the cats were turned on, they pushed the collars up and the theater with them. After the arms of the jacks were raised a mere five inches, workers stopped the elevator, secured the theater to its new height, tightened the collars and fastened them with large bolts, repositioned the jacks, and restarted the entire process.

In March, when the Palace had cleared 16 feet, the elevator project was halted so workers could build new floors in the newly made space, which also helped support the theater.

Throughout the process, a handful of people huddled in a plywood shack with their eyes on the monitors set up in the theater. A slight tilt of less than half a degree to one side or the other would have been enough for a hard stop, said Robert Israel, an executive vice president at L&L who worked on the TSX project.

Further complicating the delicate nature of erecting a 7,000-tonne theater, many aspects of the TSX project have overlapped since work began in 2019, including the demolition of the former Doubletree Hotel above the theater and the construction of its replacement, the pouring of a new base. and the addition of 51,000 square feet of signage to the exterior of the building.

Additionally, zoning codes have changed since the tower was added in the late 1980s, which could have meant a significant reduction in square footage for the final product. But under current New York zoning law, if a renovation project keeps a quarter of your square footage in place, you can keep your original square footage.

To ensure that TSX Broadway maintained its size (around 500,000 square feet), L&L had to retain many of the existing concrete slabs from the 16th floor down, essentially keeping them suspended in mid-air while construction moved around them on another Jenga-like feat.

“This is by far the most complex project I have ever undertaken, that L&L has ever undertaken,” Israel said as he stood in a cool, dark space below the Palace, which had construction notes scrawled in spray paint that attendees to the theater they will never remember. watch.

The theater reached its final height on April 5, an achievement celebrated a month later with a media event that included city officials, L&L executives and Broadway producers.

One of the oldest theaters on Broadway, the Palace had seen changes before. In 1926, its owner installed an “electric piano in its lobby to compete with the popular nearby Roxy,” according to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission 1987 report that led to the protection of much of the theater’s interior. . But the lobby, which was remodeled in the 1930s, 1960s and again in the 1980s, was never given landmark status and was torn down as part of the TSX renovation.

Functioning primarily as a movie theater for RKO Pictures in the mid-20th century, the Palace was also home to acts such as Harry Houdini, Diana Ross, and Judy Garland, who completed a 19-week run in 1951 and ’52. The Nederlander family bought the theater in 1965 and gave it a $500,000 makeover, after which it began hosting Broadway musicals, beginning with the premiere of Neil Simon’s “Sweet Charity.”

Now, as the theater prepares to welcome visitors once again, it is seen as representative of the upturn in Times Square and New York.

“We were a symbol of the pause in the pandemic, and we are a symbol of the resolve of recovery,” said Tom Harris, president of the Times Square Alliance.

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