History of the Garde
Garde Arts Center was created in 1985 as a non-profit performing arts organization in order to save and reuse the historic Garde theatre, one of the few remaining historic movie palaces in Connecticut. Built in 1926 during the golden era of the motion pictures and vaudeville theatres, the recently restored Moroccan interior of the Garde Theatre, along with the new seats and state-of-the-art stage equipment, provide a very audience-friendly theatre venue in a warm and beautiful atmosphere. Today the Garde is becoming nationally recognized for its unique architecture and multi-faceted programming.
Garde Theater circa 1927
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. 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 3500 sq. ft function hall and catering kitchen. Each lobby floor has direct access to a new elevator and stairway.
Garde Lobby before renovation
Marquee & entrance before renovation
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.
Since 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 actual restoration was done by a crew of young people trained by Hannivan including students from Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, and the community at large.
The restored part of the original Garde Theatre begins in the Kitchings Family Lobbies, entered from the new lobbies. The murals on the side walls depicting Mediterranean of the old lobby are based on the discovery made in the summer of 1998 of the western mural 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 an original remaining in the upper lobby. 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. The distinctive North African masks over the entryways to the balcony are original.
Photo of 2nd floor offices under construction
The Garde auditorium is a classic atmospheric theatre. The architecture and decorative elements have a feeling of a distant place, specifically that of Northern Africa. These elements are reminiscent of Islamic art and architecture in its simpler period when Bedouin Arab influences prevailed, and lead to later stages when the influences of Persia and greater opulence began to dominate.
When the audience sat down in their seats, they are transported to a palace in Morocco or a temple in Marrakech. Exotic bas-reliefs murals adorn the auditorium sidewalls depicting caravans traveling along the desert to ports of call, dancers in their colorful attire, and ladies browsing in the market place for the unusual. The stencil work on the ceiling and balcony are reminiscent of palace and temple ceilings and the design is similar to Bedouin carpet patterns. The murals on the side walls of the lower auditorium and balcony levels are unique to the Garde Theatre. Unlike other theatres where the murals are located primarily on the sounding boards as a picture, the murals in the Garde play a much more intricate part of the theater's decoration. They are distinctive in that they are not a flat one-dimensional picture, but a combination of traditional painting method and bas-relief. Even though two methods are being used the style remains quite loose and spontaneous overall. The bas-relief has been used primarily for the figures of people and animals while the other details (mountains, sand dunes, and sky) have been painted.
The artist who originally created the murals was Vera Leeper. This theater is the only left that has her work. Extensive research has failed to come up with any more than a single photo of one auditorium wall with her mural. She devoted her later years to teaching Native American children in the Southwest.
The following is an extract from an article written about her work from The New London Day, September 1, 1926:
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 1511 to 1458 or 1488, 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, a small 144 seat theatre, and refurbished offices.
The new Garde facilities are perfect for weddings, meetings, dinners, parties and a variety of social and business events from 20 to 1400 people. For details call (860) 444-4409 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about how you can help maintain and improve the Garde Theatre, please call (860) 444-4430 or Email: email@example.com.