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A standing ovation for a Harvard stage

Modernist designers honor tradition at New College Theatre

Architects Leers Weinzapfel tucked a state-of-the-art undergraduate theater into the back end of the dignified Victorian building that had been used for the Hasty Pudding theatricals. Architects Leers Weinzapfel tucked a state-of-the-art undergraduate theater into the back end of the dignified Victorian building that had been used for the Hasty Pudding theatricals. (Alan karchmer/esto)

Who would have thought Harvard would pick architects Leers Weinzapfel to create a modern undergraduate theater out of the old Hasty Pudding Club building in Harvard Square?

The problem was to figure out a way to tuck a state-of-the-art undergraduate theater, to be known as the New College Theatre, into the back end of a dignified Victorian clubhouse. The original building, used mostly for parties and the Hasty Pudding theatricals, was designed in 1887 by noted architects Peabody & Stearns, who did many Back Bay houses as well as the Custom House Tower.

As far from Victorian as you can easily get, Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel are fiercely dedicated modernists who normally design in crisp, contemporary materials like glass and steel. But if the choice of architects was a gamble, Harvard wins this one in spades.

The good news is that the restoration of the old building is deeply respectful and superbly detailed. Even Charles Sullivan, the hard-to-please director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, which had jurisdiction, says, "It's a really good restoration." It contains the building's old front rooms, now to be used as entry and social space.

The better news is the new theater itself. Somehow, the architects have shoehorned a 272-seat contemporary theater with all the trimmings into a space that used to be filled by a ratty rear wing that wouldn't come close to passing a fire inspection today.

That old wing housed the cramped, inconvenient, and dangerously wood-framed theater and backstage that, for over a century, was used for the Hasty Pudding theatricals. I was always glad, on leaving, that there hadn't been a fire. The Pudding plays were satirical musicals written and staged annually by Harvard students who, before women were admitted to Harvard, were probably best known for playing the female parts in outrageous drag.

I won't miss the old theater. I'm just glad to have survived it. I do miss the wonderful space above it which, in its last years, was home to the UpStairs at the Pudding restaurant. This room, with its marvelous high green vaulted ceiling and its garden terrace overlooking the back yard of the snooty undergraduate Porcellian Club, was one of the best interiors I have ever seen anywhere.

But life moves on, and you can't regret the changes when they're as well done as they are here. The old UpStairs space is occupied by a big, airy rehearsal room. It still enjoys the flowered terrace. And directly beneath it is the heart of the new building, the new theater itself.

The theater, first of all, is an amazingly generous volume, three stories high thanks to the fact that it's cut deeply into the earth. Half of all the new construction, in fact, is beneath the level of the sidewalk. Harvard calls this "mining": growing the campus by digging down instead of building up.

The theater is one of the handsomest of its size I've seen. It has the raked seats and clear sightlines, of course, that were lacking in the old space. And as befits the hidden heart of the building, it is colored in a deep red, a nod, also, to the crimson that is a familiar Harvard brand. An unexpected pleasant touch is the row of windows high on one side that open a view to the Porcellian garden.

The stage opens simply to the audience, without being either a thrust type or a proscenium, though it can be given a proscenium look by means of a curtain. A mechanical platform at stage front moves up and down. The platform does triple duty: It can be a stage enlargement, an elevator to move scenery up and down, or an orchestra pit. That's typical of the ingenuity of the New College Theatre. Fitting everything into the available space behind the old Pudding was a 3-D problem, like solving a Rubik's Cube.

The exteriors of the new wing are barely visible from any public way. They're quietly, unobtrusively handsome.

The old Hasty Pudding Club, a membership club for undergraduates, is now defunct. The Hasty Pudding Theatricals, however, is an independent entity, and the expectation is that its musicals will continue to be presented, as will its annual prizes to a male and female movie star. There's a long tradition here, which the new theater exploits by hanging a rich assortment of portraits of actors, writers, composers, and directors who, as Harvard kids, once used the Pudding stage -Jack Lemmon, Tommy Lee Jones, many others.

The New College Theatre - that will be its name until a donor comes forward - will be dedicated on Wednesday evening with a talk by Harvard president Drew Faust and a panel discussion on the topic, "Does Playwriting Have a Future?" The first performance, on Nov. 1, will be "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad," a play by Arthur Kopit, class of '59, that opened at Harvard and then moved on to Broadway.

Robert Campbell, the Globe's architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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