Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects recently completed work on interior and exterior renovations/restorations to the historic Forum Building at Fifth and Walnut Streets in Harrisburg, PA - within the Capitol Complex.
The Forum Auditorium, a 17,000-square foot space within the 300,000-square foot Forum Building, is a historically-significant part of the 1932 art deco-styled structure, originally conceived as the Commonwealth’s education building, and now serving as the State Library. The Auditorium, originally used as a lecture hall, has more recently been home to the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, and used as an adjunct performance venue for the Whitaker Center to accommodate larger audiences and provide a unique venue within the City of Harrisburg for special events.
The Auditorium’s tiered, semi-circular configuration accommodates seating for 1600. A major component of the renovation involved the replacement of all the existing seats, which had been installed in 1990s as part of an earlier Pennsylvania’s Department of General Services improvement effort. Murphy & Dittenhafer’s new seating arrangement and seat design provides more audience comfort through wider seats, more legroom, and improved aisle lighting. The new seats are not only more comfortable than the seats they replaced, but are covered in a muted green fabric reminiscent of the original 1932 seat appearance.
While well-suited for spoken presentations, the Forum Auditorium did not have the best acoustics for instrumental performance. Murphy & Dittenhafer took great care in selecting new floor finishes and seat construction materials for the recent renovations, which significantly improved upon the room’s acoustics (although acoustical modifications and enhancements were not part of the project scope).
The interior work also included emergency repairs and stabilization for the historic art deco ceiling and wall murals. The hand-painted murals are an iconic and unique historic feature of the Forum Auditorium.
The ceiling murals portray the constellations and depictions of the Zodiac, including more than one thousand accurately-located stars, while the wall murals surrounding the rear promenade illustrate the march of progress of mankind and significant individuals from each great historical period and locale. The murals are painted on canvas that adhered to plaster walls and ceilings, and had sustained water damage over the years. The emergency restoration repairs specified by Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects were designed to re-attach sections of the plaster in a way that will not hamper a future comprehensive conservation effort and mechanical system modification work that will prevent continued damage to the existing historic murals.
Exterior work focused primarily on the historic cobblestone circle driveway at the entrance to the Auditorium, the connecting driveable service walkway to one of the stage loading docks, the two vehicle ramps flanking the south side of the main building, and the installation of a new LED-illuminated marquee sign to advertise upcoming events.
The majority of the interior work was completed within a narrow window of time between June and September 2014 - after graduation functions, but prior to the start of the Symphony’s 2014-2015 season.
The client, Pennsylvania’s Department of General Services, had budgeted $3.2 million for the project. Murphy & Dittenhafer’s bids came in adequately below this number, so PA DGS was able to expand the scope of the project to include other improvements: replace theatrical lighting with LED luminaries, install a digital control system, re-lamp the historic torchere light fixtures along the promenade, and add wayfinding signs and informational LED monitors in the theater lobby.
The Forum project is a quintessential example of Murphy & Dittenhafer’s detailed approach to renovations/restorations to historic landmarks: providing a high-quality result on time, under budget, and with careful consideration for preserving the past while accommodating current needs.