The firm of Hannivan and Company, from Toronto, oversaw the restoration of the lobbies and auditorium. In October 1995, David and Patti Hannivan came to the Garde to research the original finishes of the Garde theatre and lobbies. At the time all the walls and ceilings, except for the ceiling of the auditorium, were painted white. Much of the plaster and brickwork was badly damaged by weather and overpainting, making a return to the original impossible without causing further destruction. The original Garde lobbies were two small areas on the orchestra and balcony level without any concession counters and with only one set of restrooms on the balcony level.
Other than two auditorium photographs, there were no exact descriptions, drawings or pictures of the original theatre design. The Hannivans had to scrape and explore wall, ceiling and floor surfaces to uncover what the original designs and color schemes might have been. Where there was no direct evidence of pre-existing designs, the Hannivans were asked to carry out the intent of the original.
The Lobbies – Old and New
The outer lobbies as you first enter and pass through the Box Office are all a new structural addition designed by Centerbrook Architects (CT) to provide larger lobby space, concessions areas and increased and more convenient restroom facilities and amenities, as well as code-required safety needs and wheelchair and elevator access. The lobby design cleverly incorporates new architecture to meet contemporary audience and building needs while directly connecting to the restored Moorish interior of the original lobby spaces.
The original lobby entrance, a steep and narrow foyer, was replaced with a new at-grade entrance at the west side of the building on adjacent land the Garde acquired. The new lobby was created out of three storefronts of the Garde Office Building, which were originally separated from the former theatre lobby by massive brick and concrete walls. A floor was inserted in the middle of the high-ceiling storefronts for new and expanded restrooms and two large curved concession stands. A new entryway into the auditorium was added on the east side of the restrooms. The lower portion of the former storefront space is an additional lower lobby, accessible by elevator and a curved stair.
The restored part of the original Garde Theatre begins in the Kitchings Family Lobbies, entered from the new lobbies. The actual restoration was done by a crew of young people trained by Hannivan including students from Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, Connecticut College and the community at large. The murals on the side walls depicting Mediterranean scenes are based on the discovery made in the summer of 1998 of the western mural depicting a man smoking a hookah that had been hidden for 60 years. The east mural is a new complementary design since no documentation of the original has yet been found. Scenic painter Elaine Mills of Stonington restored the side murals.
The African masks above the murals were recast by local sculptor Jennifer Collins from two originals still remaining in the upper lobby. Collins also created the molds and built on-site the pieces for the decorative tile work on the walls, the theater door plates and handles and the medallion tiles that decorate the wooden arches throughout the auditorium. The “gates of the city” at the center of the grand staircase is a new design by the Hannivans executed by the local crew. The fountain is also a new concept in the style of the old.
Relocating former restrooms to a corridor entry to the Oasis Room expanded the upper lobby now called the Pfizer Mezzanine. The newly available spaces house a private reception room on the west side – the Moroccan Room – and a new bar on the east side. At the balcony level a floor of offices occupied last by Garde administration was connected to the balcony lobby and became the new Oasis Room, a 3,500 sq. ft performance and function hall with a catering kitchen. Each lobby floor has direct access to a new elevator and stairway.
The restoration of the auditorium had to incorporate as unobtrusively as possible contemporary lighting and sound technology. The biggest challenge was a variable acoustical treatment to “tune” the hall to everything from symphony to rock to Broadway. Jaffe Holden Scarbrough Acoustics Inc., with the assistance of Sachs Morgan Studio, theater consultants from New York, devised a stunning decorative concept of Moroccan-style arches and valences that would frame retractable curtains without impairing and even enhancing the historic design of the interior. A series of filigree arches with custom made decorative ornamental plaster finishes around the sides and rear of the orchestra seats create a Moroccan courtyard effect from which desert scenes can be seen in the distance. The arches are designed to provide additional acoustic enhancement and to carry curtains, which can be opened or closed depending on the performance.
A new acoustical wall was installed in front of the projection booth with side pockets into which curtains can be withdrawn. Angled walls were built in to the side of the stage proscenium and on the face of the balcony to better disperse sound. The actual sound system consists of three speakers directly over the balcony, nine speakers under the balcony and a cluster of speakers across the top of the proscenium.
The seating was decreased from 1,511 to 1,458 or 1,488, when removable seats are used in the orchestra pit area. The new orchestra-seating layout has wider seats, curved aisles and staggered rows to improve audience viewing. New carpeting, a new chandelier and house lighting, new stage lighting, a sprinkler system, new electrical systems for sound and lights, and new auditorium entries and exits round were added.
Future renovations include stage expansion, new dressing rooms and a small secondary performance space.
The Mercer Building
The Garde-owned three-story Mercer Building, directly adjacent to the Garde building, was purchased in 1993 as an important component of the Garde’s planned theater and lobby expansion. Its basement houses the power plant installed in 1998 for the Garde Theatre lobbies and offices. The upper floors of the Mercer Building were directly connected to the Garde lobbies when the corridors were cut through into the Garde lobbies during the renovations in 1998. The second floor of the Mercer Building houses Garde administrative offices and support space for the Oasis Room. The Mercer building ground floor entry at 10 Meridian Street is the planned site of a function hall and lobby connected to the future 250-seat theater to be built on Meridian Street.
According to The Day cover story on September 1, 1926, the Mercer building was first built to be a stand-alone building with an alley between the Garde building. The Mercer Building began construction in October 1923 and became “one of the most beautiful and substantial store and office buildings in the city” when the main structure was completed in July 1924. Architect Dudley St. Claire Donnelly , who was the architect for some of New London’s finest structures, designed the building “of colonial design with slight modifications to allow for the advantages of modern requirements… with stone foundation walls resting on solid ledge. The exterior walls are of red brick with terracotta and marble ornamentation.”
In March 1926, work was started on an addition that brought the Mercer Building directly abutting the Garde building which expanded the second and third floors of office space as well as providing additional space for two storefronts on State Street and space for one store on the Meridian street side. The addition was primarily meant to complement the business in the storefront corner of State and Meridian – The Garde Catering Co., operated by Walter Garde. It provided the Garde Catering Co. a large (72 feet by 33 feet) banquet hall with four large weatherproof skylights, plastered ceiling and wall and an oak floor.