Why we should tear down the Guthrie

Share this:
April 2, 2002 // UPDATED 1:17 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Dean J. Seal
Dean J. Seal

The battle cry is still circulating with well-meaning idealists: "Save the Old Guthrie!" "Joe Dowling is trying to bury the legacy of Tony Guthrie!"

But the flagship of the Regional Theater Fleet is beginning to look like the Titanic. It is literally springing leaks and sinking.

The northeast end is settling into the soft, marshy ground it was built upon. Anyone can go downstairs and see the cracks in the theater walls, doors that have been ground down so they don't jam, with slanting gaps three fingers deep. If you can get into the men\'s bathroom, you can see cracks around half the room -- it looks like it\'s going to detach from the rest of the building.

Dave Sargent, Director of Maintenance, showed me the breaks, and said, "It's actually ripping away. See this? This is worse since I looked at it last time. This could get dangerous. My concern right now is water pipes pulling apart."

I believe in saving historic buildings. But when the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) weighs in to nominate it for the National Register of Historic Places, someone should take a deep breath and say, "Why?"

State Historic Preservation Officer Nina Archabal - who wrote the building's nomination -- couldn't even make the case without flinching. While finding the initial design collaboration "gave the theater a vitality that continues to fuel the Guthrie today," she added: \"It is simply not reasonable to conclude that the present Guthrie Theater has enough of its architectural integrity remaining to warrant a finding of eligibility based on architecture.\"

If the space isn't essential to the vitality, why not let the theater move?

Archabal even admitted, "The National Register requires that buildings be at least 50 years old (and) that the persons with whom the property is associated be deceased. Only Tyrone Guthrie of the theater\'s three principal creators is no longer alive.... The fact that the Guthrie is not yet 40 years old has complicated the case."

Complicated? Since it does not fit the criteria, why nominate it?

Even Tyrone Guthrie had problems with the Guthrie building. Here are some excerpts from his book on the experience:

"...it emerged that the cost of the building was going considerably to exceed the estimates...a serious error was now made...this involved a reduction of about 20 feet in the length of the building, the entire reduction to be made backstage.... We did suggest that the foyers and front-of-the-house arrangements, which seemed to be handsomely but needlessly spacious, might at least share the cut in space.

"Rapson opposed this suggestion for a number of reasons... but what greatly influenced the committee's agreement was that we were told that if we did not agree, the building could not be ready in time, and the opening...would have to be postponed for a year....

"All of us agreed with this decision, but now I believe it was wrong.... The pass door in our theater is rather like a bulkhead separating first-class accommodation from steerage; carpeted elegance gives place abruptly to cheerless accommodation for the Lower Orders."

--Tyrone Guthrie, A New

Theater, pp. 75-77. 1964.

The diction is unmistakable, the ire barely concealed. Guthrie's disappointment with the end result was mollified only because a regional theater dedicated to the classics had been born -- albeit in a makeshift building.

I know cheap, falling-apart cinderblock '60s architecture when I see it. I also know this -- you can\'t get a good deal on a bad building.

It's not just sinking; the Guthrie is taking on water from three different leaks. It has antiquated (1961) connections to antiquated city water lines, which burst to great effect earlier this year. Dave Sargent estimates 50,000 gallons came in that was barely averted from the stage.

It also happened two years ago, 20 feet up from where it happened this year. Dave grimaced, "I'll be working on it tonight! That's after two months. We're still not over it."

And that's just one leak; there is seepage in the basement of water going into the freight elevator shaft. And there are leaks in the roof; the PR office has plastic buckets and dishes to catch the water.

So what is it that draws people's emotions to this crumbling building with a distinguished history? Perhaps the ground-breaking design of the thrust stage?

The recent Historical Designation Committee decision said that the Guthrie's two renovations changed the thrust dramatically enough so it was no longer historic; the Guthrie's James Morrison points out that the new building's thrust "will be closer to the way the facility was originally envisioned."

Do we need two thrust stages in town? Sue McLean, the leading producer of the musical acts that take up the Guthrie's non-theater nights, said, "Where the Guthrie goes, I go."

Why doesn't the Walker use it? Some say that the Walker hates being overshadowed by the Guthrie and can't wait for the theater to move. "They want to plow it into the ground and sow salt in it, like Rome did to Carthage," says one observer. "They can't wait to get rid of it, so they make the argument that there is no use for it."

Well, if you've been to any Walker shows, you know that many are geared to smaller audiences. The current Guthrie holds 1,300 people, and that is an ugly stage to be on when it isn't full.

Walker shows now booked at other venues will settle comfortably at the art center's new, smaller, custom-designed space.

Do the performers themselves like the Guthrie stage? A friend of mine was the driver for Roxy Music when they played the Guthrie, and they all got depressed when they realized they'd been booked back into the space. They hated the stage sound (what the musicians hear while playing). The last time Roxy came to town, they played the Orpheum.

So. The Guthrie is a bad building,

unsuitably situated on marshy ground, insufficient to its founder, resented by its occupants,

outgrown by its

tenant, unwanted and inappropriate for its owner, a royal pain to its engineer, unneeded and unclaimed in the marketplace.

So, again, why save the Old Barn?

For many of the music-fan crusaders, it boils down to an emotional connection because of shows they've seen there, emotional ties to a performance history.

I understand the emotional connection.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have

produced Fringe Festival shows in the building's lobby, and the Guthrie bought ads in the Fringe program. I now report on their shows and plan to about their new building; I have friends there. I am a fan of their work, and of the current regime.

As for emotions, I hosted a benefit for Kevin Kling there, and it was the high point of my performing career. I don't feel like I ever have to go onstage again. My mom saw me do that show. And there was a day last week, when my mom, with her failing eyesight, showed me a picture of the Guthrie Stage. "I saw George Grizzard on this stage, and I saw Hume Cronyn on this stage, and I saw you on this stage," she

said proudly, with tears welling up in her

83-year-old eyes.

On the tears of my mother, I paraphrase Ronald Reagan: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this hall."