Music Hall Archway in Portsmouth

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Music Hall, city to partner on $800K streetscape, archway

Seacoast Online | March 22, 2016 | By Jeff McMenemy

The Music Hall, in partnership with the city, is launching an $800,000 project to upgrade the Chestnut Street streetscape around the historic theater.

Patricia Lynch, executive director of The Music Hall, said the project will address unsafe sidewalks around the building, awkward access for pedestrians, buses and handicapped patrons and “provide us with some very much-needed visibility.”

A key piece to improve visibility is The Music Hall’s proposal to erect a “way-finding arch that will connect the African Burial Ground and Vaughan Mall to the Northern Tier,” Lynch said during a presentation to the City Council on Monday night.

“We think this partnership creates an elegant solution, a pedestrian-friendly street that allows for patron drop-off and loading, (and) improved turning radius for emergency vehicles on Chestnut Street,” Lynch said.

She noted that “both The Music Hall and the African Burial Ground are hard to find from downtown unless you already know where they are.”

The proposed illuminated arch will span Chestnut Street at Congress Street and the opening will face the Vaughan Mall. It would serve as an entry to Chestnut Street from Congress Street, one of the busiest roadways downtown.

The proposed way-finding arch — which The Music Hall would pay for — “creates visibility to city treasures and builds on a city history of archways,” Lynch said Monday night.

Ben Auger, a member of The Music Hall’s Board of Trustees and chairman of the facilities committee, told city councilors “we’ve actually been working on this for at least eight years with the city and we’re working with multiple local firms.”

“We’ve had more than several meetings with different city departments about these proposals and gotten feedback,” Auger said.

Music Hall representatives have also spoken to abutters of the 1878 theater and they “are on board and enthusiastic,” he said.

The improvements include a new level paving pattern around the entrance to the Music Hall and “trees and greenery and … seating areas,” Auger said.

“It’s a very safe and pleasant gathering area,” Auger said Monday night.

The “50/50 partnership” calls for the Music Hall to pay for $400,000 of the streetscape improvements and the city to pay for $400,000 from money that has already been approved in its capital improvement plan, Lynch said.

In addition to the partnership part of the project, The Music Hall will be independently taking on a renovation project “that (is) not tied directly to the streetscape but they are related and they would be done in tandem,” Lynch said.

That means upgrading the exterior of the historic theater, including fixing the trim and the windows and replacing the “damaged marquee that is now plywood with a vintage inspired illuminated marquee similar to what was there in the 1900s,” she added.

“As with the arch, it will be completely funded by The Music Hall’s capital campaign,” Lynch said.

The City Council voted unanimously to move the proposal to Art-Speak, the city’s cultural commission, to authorize The Music Hall to proceed with a project review by the Historic District Commission, the Parking, Traffic and Safety Committee and the Trees and Greenery Committee.

The City Council will ultimately decide whether to approve the project, according to Mayor Jack Blalock.

City Councilor Nancy Pearson, the executive director of Art-Speak, called the project “a really important endeavor for one of Portsmouth’s anchor arts and cultural organizations.”

“This is the first encounter so many people have with our city, and if it’s dangerous and awkward and they’re slipping and it’s dark, that’s not a wonderful first impression,” Pearson said.

Blalock praised the proposed project, saying he’s delighted in seeing the rebirth of what was once a movie theater “in the past several years.”

“What a beautiful place it is and what a beautiful theater,” Blalock said during Monday night’s council meeting.