Highlighting History

By Claire Swedberg | Feb 15, 2009




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On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot during a performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Since then, the theater has been an active playhouse and museum as well as an abandoned, aging structure. But renovations that began in August 2007, with Forrester Construction as general contractor, are bringing new life to the 144-year-old theater in time for Lincoln’s bicentennial birthday, with a project that makes it both more modern and historically accurate.

The Ford’s Theatre Society intends to renovate the entire Ford’s Theatre “campus,” which makes up the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. The campus consists of the renovated theater and museum located in the basement; the Petersen House, where President Lincoln was taken after he was shot in the theater; and the new Center for Education and Leadership, housed in a building recently purchased by Ford’s Theatre Society.

The National Park Service owns the building, while Ford’s Theatre Society manages the theater. Ford’s Theatre Society hired the architect to design the renovation work, and the National Park Service hired Forrester; the electrical contractor, Natelco Corp.; and the other subcontractors.

The Ford’s Theatre renovation work consists of the theater and two connected buildings, one on either side. The upgrades provide additional lobby space, improved sound and lighting systems, a more modern and efficient heating and air conditioning system, and better access for people with disabilities. The upgraded lobby holds a gift shop, concessions, a box office, new restrooms and the theater’s first elevator, transporting visitors from the street level to the basement museum.

Other upgrades and improvements to the four-story theater include modified actor dressing rooms and a conference room designed as an 1865 parlor with wood-paneled walls and velvet curtains. It will be used for functions with donors, benefactors and board members.

Natelco Corp., Capitol Heights, Md., provided the rewiring. The project began for Natelco in September 2007, when the company’s bid was accepted for wiring in a new lighting system and audio/video system in the three connected buildings: the Star Saloon on the south side, the theater in the middle and building No. 517 on the north side where the theater entrance, lobby, main ticket booth and dressing rooms are located. In the basement of the theater, Forrester is refurbishing an area for the museum, which includes items from the theater as well as large artifacts, such as a 15-foot piece of the capitol building.

“It’s a historic building with a major upgrade,” said Gerald French, project manager, Forrester Construction. “Working within that environment, while maintaining the historic integrity of the building has been the greatest challenge for the contractors.”

Before Natelco got involved, the theater had already been through several renovations, said Gary Cooke Jr., Natelco project manager. What the electrical contractor found when it got to work was a “hodgepodge” of wiring installations.

In 1902, the theater was damaged in a fire, and it was not properly repaired until 1965, when a bulldozer tore out the interior and effectively removed the theater’s historic elements. This time, the National Park Service intended for a complete renovation that would restore some of the building’s early historical appearance. However, the only part of the theater that remains completely historic is the inside of the Lincoln state box and the exterior facade of the building.

Once contractors opened the ceiling at the street level, they discovered the many years of upgrades, patchwork and fixes that had taken place in the building. Duct work and conduit, pieced together, needed to be improved, relocated or removed. In the 60-foot-by-110-foot attic, crews discovered asbestos and lead, and the remediation forced contractors to slow down the project for several weeks. When possible, Natelco electricians worked around the asbestos crews, keeping their work on the opposite side of the attic.

“Renovations always present some surprises,” French said. “You never know what you’re going to hit. The systems were definitely in need of upgrade.”

Contractors worked closely with the park service to get upgrades done on time. They worked around much of it by holding weekly owners’ meetings and interfacing with consultants for Ford’s Theatre to work through any changes or problems.

But coordination of limited space would be a singular challenge when it came to running conduit and ductwork through the narrow confines of the limited ceiling and wall space. The street-level ceiling offered only 18 inches of space with about two of those inches filled with insulation. Coordinating the remaining space would be a major effort.

Conduit for the power source came through the museum ceiling (under the theater) into a new switchgear room located in the basement of building no. 517.

The theater kept many of the original lighting fixtures on the balconies, but the renovation includes new theatrical lighting for which Natelco installed the low-voltage wiring.

“We were responsible for pulling all of the conductors for this system,” Cooke said.

To bring the theatrical lighting and new audio/video system into the theater, Natelco did something unique: the company ran wire up the 68-foot wall behind the stage from the basement mechanical room to the attic, with cable branching out to devices at the gallery level and again at the attic. A new control room for lighting was installed at the family-circle level—the highest level in the theater—with the lighting equipment rail installed at the same level. Stage right, Natelco installed the dimmer system and, stage left, the audio system. When working on that backstage wall, electricians used scaffolding to raise the conduit up to the attic.

Outside in the back alley, Natelco installed a Cummins Onan 80-kW generator as backup power for the theater. In addition, Natelco installed 23 new distribution panels that provide power for the new audiovisual and theatrical lighting system.

The building’s addressable fire alarm system, first installed in 2002, needed to be relocated, and Natelco removed and reinstalled it to serve the building’s three wings. Building No. 517 was entirely gutted, Cooke said.

“The only thing that was salvaged from building No. 517 was the fire alarm,” he said.

The Star Saloon, by contrast, had only minor tenant upgrades. Natelco provided power for the renovated office spaces. Natelco also provided power and fire alarm work associated with the installation of the new elevator in building No. 517.

Most notable for the theatergoers, the building is going to be more comfortable, with the new heating, ventilating and air conditioning system making the building interior more temperate in extreme weather. The newly renovated theater has two new air-handling units added to the existing two units, doubling the system’s capacity. In addition, theater seating is improved. Throughout the project, Natelco worked around the plaster walls and concrete beams. Where the plaster walls were cut to make room for cable or for any other work, it was pieced back to make it seamless, French said.

Despite the modern improvements, some history remains. The expanded lobby will be anchored by a cylindrical glass case housing the long, Brooks Brothers top coat worn by Lincoln the night he was killed. The words, “One country, one destiny,” are embroidered in the coat’s lining. After April 15, 2009, a replica will be displayed.

Cooke said the most interesting part of the project was the theatrical lighting and audio/video system install.

“There was so much conduit required for these systems, and the theater is such a small space compared to other theaters with this kind of system,” he said. “It was a major challenge to get all of the conduit installed without affecting any of the existing conditions of the theater.”

The coordination and installation of this work was performed by job site foreman John Lorrence along with what Cooke calls “our group of skilled tradesman.”

“There is no way this project could have been completed on time without the knowledge and experience of John Lorrence and our electricians,” Cooke said.

Altogether, the company ran 160,000 feet of pipe for the audio/video system and 100,000 feet of pipe for the dimming system, and performed 1,800 dimming terminations. At the peak of the project, there were 28 Natelco electricians on the job site.

Forrester was so impressed with Natelco’s clean work in tight spaces that the company put Natelco up for a Washington Building Congress Craftsmanship award.

“When you’re in the midst of a high profile job, it’s just another job to most guys, but when you see the results, you realize you were doing something important,” French said.

The theater and museum are scheduled to open this month in time for President Lincoln’s birthday. Natelco handed over the keys for the theater in November 2008, making it ready for audio/video and theatrical lighting installers to finish the project.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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