Opera & Musical Theater

Wortham Center’s 20th Anniversary

The Wortham Theater Center celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Eric Skelly recounts his experience working with the Houston Grand Opera during the opening of that storied building.

TheSaturday, May 9, 1987 – It’s an auspicious evening, when Houston’s new Theater District crown jewel, The Wortham Center, houses its first-ever public performance: an Inaugural Gala Concert with fully-staged performances by Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet, as well as a star-studded guest list. Sprawling over two entire blocks in the heart of downtown Houston, the pristine theater complex’s 2100-seat Brown Theater holds its very first audience, an eager capacity crowd. Onstage, such arts luminaries as Dame Margot Fonteyn, Peter Martins, Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg and Hildegard Behrens inaugurate Houston’s new arts destination in spoken tribute and in performance. Meanwhile, outside the sound-trapping double-doors of the Brown Theater, the entire front-of-house is being transformed into an elegant party, unbeknownst to the gala-enthralled audience inside the theater. The performance concluded, the audience is met with the sight of a grand foyer festooned with gala decorations, great towers of strawberries ringed below with tureens of dipping cream, and sumptuous food buffets of all sorts in every corner. Houston is rightfully proud of its $70-million dollar opera house, funded entirely by private donations during the low point of Houston’s mid-80s economic bust. It’s a Texas-scale launch of a revitalizing force in Houston’s Theater District, and a celebration of Houston itself, as only Houston can do.

A ticket from the Wortham Center’s Opening Gala (Click image to enlarge)

At the time, I was Houston Grand Opera’s 27-year-old assistant to the public relations director, hired a scant year before by HGO public relations guru Ava Jean Mears. Under Ava Jean, HGO’s PR Department worked with the PR firm hired by the Wortham Center to help publicize this momentous event. And for that reason alone, unlikely little me rated a pair of balcony tickets.

Also in the audience that night in substantially better seats (and rightly so) was Don Springer, Partner in Charge of the Wortham Center design project for Morris Architects. Not quite a year earlier in June 1986, I first encountered Don Springer when he led a group of HGO staffers on a hard-hat tour of the construction site. The complex’s steel skeleton and rough materials showed gray everywhere you looked as we climbed up and down stairwells through the saturated Houston summer air. None of us really cared that elevators, escalators and air-conditioning were many months in the Wortham Center’s future, eager as we were for our first glimpses of the unfinished theaters from the tops of their respective balconies. The Brown Theater looked a far cry from the warm, burnished, burgundy performance hall it would soon become, but already you could see the balance between the large scale of the hall and the intimate, unimpaired sight lines afforded even those seated in the uppermost reaches of the balcony.

Over two decades later, Don Springer remembers vividly the challenge of designing The Wortham Center, and working with all the seemingly irreconcilable criteria he and the design team from Morris Architects were given. Before diving in to The Wortham Center design project, though, Springer went overseas on his own dime, armed with a letter of introduction from David Gockley, and took good long looks at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and Venice’s La Fenice among others. When he returned, he and his colleagues knew it was crucial to bring this project in under budget, yet still incorporate all the design criteria given them by everyone with a vested interest in the new theater complex, including the City of Houston, Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet.

An envelope for the Wortham Center’s Opening Gala (Click image to enlarge)

For example, “The City of Houston said ‘here are two blocks’ and by the way, they’re not together,'” remembers Don Springer, “‘and there’s this street between them that’s never gonna close.'” The solution: build The Wortham Center up and over, with Prairie Street running unimpeded beneath the grand foyer.

The stage floor of the two theaters was a source of particular design difficulty according to Don Springer, as the architects worked hard to give both the Ballet and the Opera what they needed. “Most of the criteria were set by Ballet and Opera operations,” explains Springer. “They wanted the rear stage areas as large as the stage [to accommodate multiple, complex productions in the same repertory period], the side stage areas as large as the stage, the rehearsal halls that were the same size as the stage, so that they could erect the set in the rehearsal hall and actually have rehearsals on the full set.”

But the stage floor was the sticking point. Houston Ballet wanted resilient floors to reduce dancer injuries. Houston Grand Opera wanted a floor you could build a 3-story set on. So the architects kept redesigning ’til they had both: a floor that can be moved on-and-offstage electronically that’s both resilient enough for dancers, yet strong enough to hold the most elaborate opera sets.

Initially, the project of designing The Wortham Center was offered to Philip Johnson, the New York-based architect responsible for many of the most prominent features of the Houston skyline, including the Gothic Cathedral-like Bank of America building. “It would be a no-brainer,” explains Don Springer. “Everybody would love him: out-of-town architect, ‘lots of publicity,’ front page of the New York Times and all that kind’a stuff.” However, Johnson came back with a design that would cost way more than feasibility studies showed could be raised from the private sector to fund the construction.

TheSo instead, the job went to the local team, Morris Architects. Working with both theater design and acoustical design consultants, “we started with the idea that the money goes in to the operations of the facility, not the decoration of the facility,” says Don Springer. “It wouldn’t have marble or granite all over the exterior, or fancy materials inside and out. It would work really well backstage, though, and it would be attractive in the houses, just not gold-plated.”

“The one that comes to mind right now, is, of course, The Disney Concert Hall,” he continues. “It’s basically a shoe-box configuration for the concert hall, decorated with all these stainless-steel panels. So 2/3 of the price goes toward decorating the box. With The Wortham Center we wanted to put the money into the facility’s ability to function, so we knew all along we’d have to use some common, reasonable materials like brick. There is some granite trim but it’s mostly around the big arch and around the lower sections. The interior is all plaster, which works well in the theater houses themselves because of the natural acoustics. We came up with the special paint surface that made it warm and inviting in all the public areas.”

It’s important to note that The Wortham Center’s designers wanted, from the outset, to create a public space that’s “warm and inviting.” Much more than just a ‘safety valve’ to relieve the overburdened Jones Hall of having to serve the needs of at least four major resident arts organizations, The Wortham Center was and is a gift to all of the people of Houston…a gift presented at a time when Houston needed a reason to celebrate; a big piece of good news to rally around; something to point to and say ‘we may be going through some rough times, but this is Houston, Texas, and this is how we rebound!’

Don Springer went on to work on the designs of other high-profile projects, such as Moody Gardens in Galveston (where they started the design process with nothing more than a bare plot of land) and Walt Disney Animation studios in California. But on May 9, 1987 that was all in the future, and Don Springer and his fellow architects were basking in the glow of a successful debut for their $70 million dollar baby, The Wortham Center. And up in the balcony, a green, young PR assistant was fidgeting with his rented tuxedo and feeling very, very lucky to be there.