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Our Town with William Kelly: Royal Poinciana Playhouse renovation enters demolition phase

The Royal Poinciana Playhouse is undergoing extensive exterior and interior demolition as part of the renovation of the landmarked building.

The razing of some external walls was necessary to accommodate structural support for the future building, said Alexandra Clark, vice president of asset strategy and experience for WS Development, the project’s developer.

The curved east façade of the playhouse has been braced until it can be attached to the new superstructure. The Celebrity Room ceiling mural and surrounding infrastructure also has been stabilized and protected, Clark said.

“We’re thrilled this is finally happening,” Clark said. “The beginning of construction is always challenging and after talking about this project for almost 10 years, we understand the shock to see construction underway. In a few short months, the community will start to see the playhouse walls rise up and the most incredible waterfront cultural arts center will be one step closer to opening night lights.”

Architect John Volk designed the Regency-style building, which opened in 1958 and became a social center for the island in the 1960s and 1970s when it featured Broadway tours of plays, ballets and musical performances and drew big-name celebrities including Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Nightly dinners and dancing in the Celebrity Room, on the south side of the building, were part of the glamour and attraction.

The 860-seat playhouse has been shuttered since 2004 following the departure of its last tenant, Clear Channel Communications.

The town-approved renovation began last year. The playhouse is scheduled to reopen in late 2024 as a cultural arts venue with a seating capacity of 400. Also planned is a 200-seat waterfront restaurant with outdoor dining.

Nearly 8,000 square feet will be added to the original 34,517-square-foot building as part of a plan to create 12,000 square feet of retail and gallery space. The redesign includes the addition of floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, and a retractable backdrop wall to be used during performances.

INNOVATE, a publicly held company chaired by Palm Beach resident Avram “Avie” Glazer, will operate the programming for the cultural arts center, which Glazer has said will include art exhibitions, films, music, dance, plays, conferences and lectures.

Clark said the exterior demolition will be followed by installation of a new foundation consisting of hundreds of pilings that will support a new superstructure and walls. From there, the roof, interior walls, windows and doors will be installed, followed by the interior design. Underground utility work will also begin in the coming weeks.

Commissioner questions extent of demolition

The Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved the playhouse redevelopment plan in February 2022.

At the commission’s most recent meeting on July 19, member Brittain Damgard said the playhouse demolition appeared to her to have exceeded what the board approved.

“The playhouse is virtually gone except for the east façade,” Damgard said. “I’d like to know how that happened.”

The board deferred the matter until its Aug. 16 meeting to allow time to publicly advertise the discussion. Zoning Director Wayne Bergman said the town will invite representatives from three renovation projects, each involving extensive demolition of a landmarked building, to address the commission at the meeting. The projects are the playhouse, North Fire Station, and a structure on Monterey Road.

Bergman also said staff would monitor the playhouse to ensure that the demolition is within the guidelines approved by the commission.

Bergman told commissioners that historic restoration projects often involve extensive reconstruction: “In many cases, historic buildings, instead of being restored, are actually being rebuilt.”

In a July 20 email responding to questions for this article, Bergman said town staff reviewed the commission’s approval of the playhouse renovation plans and an updated presentation the commission received from Clark in November following an exploratory review of the construction site.

“The original Certificate of Appropriateness approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission had a defined level of interior and exterior demolition,” Bergman said. “The [November] presentation expanded the extent of demolition after the building walls and foundations had been evaluated. All of the demolition conducted to date appears to have been reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.”

Bergman continued, “The high visibility of the playhouse building from the north [Flagler] bridge draws attention to this demolition. Much of what has been demolished will be rebuilt on better foundations, per the approved plans.”

Clark said borings by geotechnical engineers last year revealed the soil beneath the playhouse is muck. Structural engineers also found that the walls were seriously compromised. To successfully restore the building and avoid future settlement issues, the developer needed to complete major structural work that includes the hundreds of pilings and superstructure to support the new arts center.

“In order to accomplish these goals, we came up with a demolition plan that preserved elements of the building and identified parts of the building that needed to be rebuilt, like for like, to enable the subsurface work and ensure durability and longevity for the building,” she said.

Clark said the landmarks board was informed of these developments during her November presentation.

“The demolition is not more than contemplated, it is what we discussed last year and what was subsequently in our building permit,” she said.

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