Trenton, New Jersey-based Clarke Caton Hintz is the architecture firm selected for Newark Symphony Hall’s $50 million revitalization. (Courtesy venue)

Historic venue in New Jersey’s most populous city has hosted brightest of show biz stars

Newark Symphony Hall has unveiled a streetscape design that will be part of a continuing $50 million exterior makeover of the historic New Jersey theater, which opened in 1925 and has been Black-led since the 1980s.

With the 2,800-seat Sarah Vaughan Concert Hall, 1,500-capacity Terrace Ballroom and 225-seat black box theater, the venue — which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 — began the five-year renovation project last year. It is scheduled to be completed in time for the hall’s 100-year anniversary.

The new exterior design will integrate Newark Symphony Hall into Newark’s Lincoln Park. (Courtesy Clarke Caton Hintz)

The exterior design comes from Trenton, New Jersey-based Clarke Caton Hintz and includes a new marquee and integration into NSH’s location in Newark’s Lincoln Park, with a plaza, new bikes lanes, street curbing and a central island on Broad Street. Clarke Caton Hintz Associate Partner Stephen Doyle is the project architect.

Fundraising for the project is ongoing, according to NSH President and CEO Taneshia Nash Laird, who said the non-profit organization that operates the theater, Newark Performing Arts Corp., will also rely on state and federal money to fund the project, which also includes some interior improvements and bringing a dormant floor of the building back into use.

The project will create over 500 constructions jobs and opportunities for small business, Nash Laird said.

The venue — which through the years has hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Judy Garland to Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan — was awarded a $750,000 Preserve New Jersey grant last year from the New Jersey Historic Trust, which is part of the state’s Department of Community Affairs.

Meanwhile, NSH has announced that Newark-based Yendor Theatre Company — which develops and produces works by Black, brown and women writers as well as those from the LGBTQ+ community – will be its first company-in-residence since the 1970s. Yendor will co-produce, along with North Hollywood, California-based WACO (Where Art Can Occur) Theater Center, Richard Wesley’s “Black Terror,” originally staged in 1971 as part of the Joseph Papp-produced New York Shakespeare Festival (now Shakespeare in the Park).

The production, directed by WACO’s co-artistic director Richard Lawson, who appears on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” will stream online this summer. Yendor, a 2021 Black Seed grant winner, will also be the first resident of a performing arts career accelerator and business incubator called The Lab at NSH.

Some of the actors in “Black Terror” will perform in NSH’s black box and others will be on the West Coast, but the audience won’t be able to tell, Nash Laird said.

Launched with financial support from Newark Arts, which supports over 60 arts organizations in the Garden State’s most populous city, “Black Terror” will initiate The Lab’s effort to promote programs and performing artists, from musicians and singers to actors, dancers, spoken word artists as well as directors and theater technical staff in the Greater Newark region.

Nash Laird originally met Yendor Theatre Company co-founder and Artistic Director Andrew Binger at the Victoria Emerging Leaders Program at Rutgers Business School’s Institute for Ethical Leadership, where she served as Binger’s mentor.

“I had always said to him that I wanted to continue to support him in any way in my capacity as his mentor,” Nash Laird said. “One of the things that he had expressed is that the late founder Rodney Gilbert always wanted to have a relationship with Newark Symphony Hall, a formal relationship. I said we can make that happen.”

Seeking to “kick the relationship up a notch,” Nash Laird approached the WACO Theater Center, with whose executive director she was friends, made a pitch and the partnership was off and running within a matter of weeks.

“Black Terror” kicks off a new round of NSH virtual programming that includes an interview-style series called “Homegrown,” featuring prominent Newark born and raised entertainers like actress and R&B recording artist Melba Moore.

Nash Laird, who joined NSH in November of 2018, said the hall was headed into what was expected to be a busy 2020 when the pandemic brought everything to a standstill. Programming scheduled for the first two quarters of the year and a concert scheduled for the latter part of 2020 were canceled, she said.

“We were headed into a new programming year that we were being very intentional (about) and booking what we thought was good stuff and it all came to a halt (that March),” said Nash Laird.

Nash Laird said NSH has a great relationship with the IATSE union and the two entities are working to expand a program that trains high school students and area individuals who are not in school.

The hall, which recently joined the New Jersey Arts and Culture Administrators of Color Network, took a bit of a hit after the opening of the 3,352-seat New Jersey Performing Arts Center in downtown Newark in 1997.

Nash Laird said what’s happening now with NSH is an organic effort that embraces the existing community into its vision.

“It’s why I use the term revitalization and not renewal,” she said. “I think ‘urban renewal’ evokes bad memories of big promises broken, particularly in communities of color.”

Nash Laird has taken to saying she wants the $50 million investment in NSH “to happen with the community of Newark and not to the community of Newark.”

“One of the reasons, in my view that gentrification and displacement happen, is not because of new investment. People want new investment in their community,” she said. “But oftentimes the way that that investment is implemented does not actually include the people in the community.”

It’s one of the reasons Nash Laird chose a minority-owned consultancy to put together the request for proposals and then made the recommendation to select Clarke Caton Hintz, she said.