Playhouse Square Makeover Caps a Dramatic Comeback Story

Danny Barnycz, who designed the Playhouse Square makeover, has a reputation that stretches from Chicago to Dubai.
Danny Barnycz, who designed the Playhouse Square makeover, has a reputation that stretches from Chicago to Dubai.
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Thousands are expected to gather for the illumination. Many passers-by have been watching as the chandelier was being installed. Whether awe-struck or dumb-struck, the structure makes an impression.

“I think it’s awesome. I think it’s amazing. I can’t wait to see what happens”

“It’s cool. I think it’s kind of classy”

“I like it, I guess. But, I thought it was kind of unnecessary, but it looks cool. We were fine without that extra light”

“Well, I think it looks nice. I hope they didn’t blow all their money on all this fancy stuff. I want the theaters to survive, I don’t care about the chandelier.”

So, whose idea was this anyway? That would be internationally famous urban designer Danny Barnycz --- known for large-scale creations with dramatic flair. He was called in to assist in a 16-million dollar freshening up of the Playhouse Square look and brand. Barnycz says the inspiration for the immense outdoor lighting fixture came as he took a tour of the interiors of the elegantly appointed 1920’s-era theaters.

DANNY BARNYCZ: I had this idea, after seeing all of these beautiful details, that what we really need to do is bring the theaters outside to the street.

The chandeliers, and marble staircases, and velvet curtains of those theaters were on their way to being plowed into a parking lot a little over 40 years ago. Cleveland Plain Dealer Arts and Architecture reporter Steven Litt says a population shift from cities to the suburbs had forced the closing of these historic downtown movie palaces.

STEVEN LITT: Modern architecture was all in vogue, and anything that looked old had to be swept away. And, I think, people began to realize, after a lot of that sweeping away, we might be regretting what we’re doing here in 20 or 30 years.

Among the first to come to see the potential was a former car salesman and named Ray Shepardson. He began staging low-budget productions in the shuttered theaters, just to stave off the wrecking ball. A charismatic and often obstinate figure whose intervention, Litt says, allowed time for community leaders to step in and professionalize his grassroots preservation efforts.

STEVEN LITT: What Ray Shepardson started helped launch a national movement of theater restoration. So, he’s kind of a Johnny Appleseed, who got started here.

What emerged in Cleveland was a non-profit powerhouse that spawned economic development in the six-block theater neighborhood – Playhouse Square Foundation bought and sold properties and developed them into office space, more than 100 apartments and other uses that has help fund the theaters --- ten stages in all. And ---full disclosure ---a partnership with public broadcasting for shared space.

Playhouse Square President and CEO, Art Falco nurtured those early seeds into something that few performing arts organizations have been able to pull off.

ART FALCO: What makes us unique is owning a large performing arts center as well as being a real estate developer in the neighborhood --- that is what sets us apart from pretty much anyone else in the country.

The giant chandelier, new golden gateways, and expanded signage are being paid for with public and private funds.

ART FALCO: Over two thirds of it will be private, and roughly a third, public.

Cuyahoga County is contributing 4-million-dollars from casino revenue, the city of Cleveland is putting in another million, and the rest is being paid for by corporate sponsors who are getting their own form of branding.

Some would rather it had been done without any public funds. Community activist Angie Schmitt writes a popular blog about rust belt sustainability issues, and she doesn’t think a region with major economic challenges should be spending millions of dollars for downtown decorations.

ANGIE SCHMITT: It’s not going to contribute to changing Cleveland’s image in a more positive way. And it won’t improve quality of life for city residents, either.

DCB: The Plain Dealer’s Steven Litt has been seeing similar complaints in his paper’s comment section. None of it shakes his support for the Playhouse Square facelift.

STEVEN LITT: People have commented vociferously in recent days on that we have no business spending a dime on public space in Cleveland, before every pothole is filled, but I think a great city can walk and chew gum at the same time.

The lighting ceremony for the giant Playhouse Square chandelier takes place Friday evening at 9:30.

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