The Last Moving Floor In Action
by Landis K. Magnuson
(All photos by the author except as noted)
In the winter 1992 issue of Theatre Design & Technology (Volume 28, Number 1), I shared a story entitled “New England Yankee Ingenuity: The Moveable Opera House Floors of George Gilman Adams.” This story, largely centered in Rochester, New Hampshire, concerned the unique moving floor mechanisms designed by George Adams, a Rochester area native (and distant relative of President John Adams) who envisioned the practical sensibility of such systems. Nearly fifteen years ago I concluded it was highly unlikely that the floor system would ever be returned to a working state and, as such, pleaded for the preservation of the rare mechanics for future appreciation and study, despite having outlived its apparent usefulness.
Many stories would simply end there and possibly only generate a passing note when the historic artifacts were removed due to some future claim on the auditorium space. Little did I dare dream then that the floor unit would once again be fully functional and that stage technicians would continue, as many as three times per season, the cycle of lowering and then raising the floor for various artistic and community events. With a fully operational floor system, the combined Rochester City Hall and Opera House has again returned to being a vibrant center of both government and culture in this New Hampshire community and the seacoast region. For those unfamiliar with this story as previously tendered, please allow me to provide an overview of the past leading to the completed restoration.
THE WORK OF GEORGE G. ADAMS
George Gilman Adams (1850-1932) (fig. 7) maintained an architectural career in New England spanning some six decades, during which he produced designs for at least seventy buildings, including numerous government and civic structures. In total, Adams designed seven municipal buildings complete with auditoriums in the region, of which four were equipped with unique moveable floor designs. Today, only the Rochester, New Hampshire, edifice remains standing, unscathed by fire. While certainly an unquestionable example of Yankee ingenuity, we do not know for sure what motivated Adams to design the flexibility inherent in a moving floor system. A patent application made by Adams in 1886 for his “Device for Raising and Lowering Floors of Theaters and Halls” was granted in July of the following year, based upon the use of rope or wire wrapped or released from around drums spaced on an overhead shaft. “I am aware that prior to my invention,” Adams argued in his application, “tipping floors have been made or used, being raised, however, by jack-screws or hydraulics in the cellar of the building, and pushing the floor up from below.” (Adams 1887)
Likely based on experience from previous installations, the design employed in Rochester would not use rope or wire, but instead maintained a system of large overhead gears and flathead screws. Construction of the Rochester City Hall and Opera House (the last civic structure designed by Adams with a moving floor) was finished in 1908, costing nearly $62,000. The auditorium, accommodating 1,012 patrons according to a historic seating chart, was complete with a grand proscenium, intricate stenciling, and murals, and a suspended horseshoe balcony. Of very special interest was the unique moving floor system which, in itself, cost a total of $1,100. For comparison purposes, a contract of $1,316 covered the plumbing and gas piping throughout the entire building.
Presently, extensive research has revealed no other late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century inclining floor system to survive in working order in the United States. Even to locate accounts of employing such mechanical means is unusual and, when successful, hardly on the scale of design and usage envisioned by Adams. For example, Neche Hall (1900) in Neche, North Dakata - lost to interested historians now for over twenty years -had its floor balanced in the middle, allowing the removal of stops and the shifting of the floor like a teeter-totter from a level position to a raked one. This venue utilized a floor thirty-five by fifty feet capable of tilting one end two feet (thus a total rake of four feet) through the most basic of playground maneuvers (Zivanovic 1988). Such mechanics compare poorly to the Rochester system.
To date, the closest comparable system located is found in the St. George Social Hall (c. 1875-1880) in St. George Utah. As described by local historian Bart Anderson, the portion of the floor that moved in this venue (later known as the Opera House) was thirty by fifty feet, which once again makes it similar in size to the Rochester floor. The movement of the floor was powered, however, by four large wooded screws turned manually from below. According to Anderson, the mechanical system was rotated using wooden pegs like a capstan employed to move an anchor on a boat (Anderson 2005). While similar in some very basic characteristics to that which is found in Rochester, this floor today remains stationary and no longer moves as designed. Consequently, the title of last historic moveable theatre or hall floor in use in the United States falls, I argue, to one present in southeastern New Hampshire. (Some modern moving floors exist, of course. One such floor system is in the Municipal Auditorium in San Antonio Texas, which was designed, manufactured, and installed in the mid-1980’s by the Peter Albrecht Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.)
THE ROCHESTER FLOOR SYSTEM
The moving portion of the Rochester auditorium floor is roughly fifty-seven feet in width and forty-one feet in length (currently seating nearly 360 patrons) being raised and lowered at its rear edge approximately three feet. The key mechanics of the system are accessed only through a small floor opening and is located in a cramped crawl space in the left rear of the auditorium (essentially between the balcony floor and the ceiling of a small lobby area and office space). Here can be found the three-horse-power electric motor, belts, and gears that enable the rising and lowering of the floor. The power generated by the electric motor is connected through a series of leather belts (fig. 1) to a three-part control unit (fig. 2) Although initially this control unit appears an entanglement of belts, it proves to be simple in overall technique. While the two outer wheels of the control unit do not transmit power, inspection reveals that the slightly larger middle one does. To raise the floor the crossed belt must be moved to the center position using the guide handle. To lower the floor, moving the uncrossed belt to the center position created the necessary downward direction. Through a series of gears, energy is transferred to a continuous shaft running the width of the auditorium. This line shaft consequently powers a total of seven major flathead gears (fig. 3), each with a lengthy threaded shaft extending downwards. A nut or “floating collar” moves up and down the shaft according to the direction of the rotation movement, which, in turn, is attached to connecting rods that are secured to a corresponding floor girder below. These seven pairs of connecting rods normally are hidden from view by an equal number of column facades located at the rear of the auditorium’ one of which is shown uncovered in figure 4. The primary floor girders remain single solitary timbers (approximately eight by fourteen inches) and run the entire forty-plus foot length of the auditorium floor. Figure 5 shows detail of a girder braced for added support while the floor is in the inclined position. A fixed subfloor structure, designed by Adams to support the girders when lowered to a level position, now is reinforced to meet current building codes.
Although oral tradition held it took several hours to complete the raising or leveling of the floor, in actuality it takes closer to three-quarters of an hour as the floor moves approximately one inch per minute. Figure 8 captures Anthony Ejarque of the Opera House staff throwing the electrical control switch to the “Start” position, thus placing the motor in low gear. If the various drive belts remain in place as needed and all seems to be running smoothly, the electrical control switch is moved to the “Run” position and the motor supplies all the necessary power for shifting the floor, plus a slight vibration to the control area and a rhythmic hum to the event. The wooden handle of the control unit then can be used to guide the desired belt into the center position, if not already preset. Once fully engaged, the unmistakable sound of the slap of the rapidly turning leather belts, whirling flywheels, and the clicking teeth of gears fills the auditorium. Because one visually is blocked from viewing the event as it unfolds, a clever and unique device provides an ongoing read-out of the process (fig. 6) Found opposite of the main control mechanism is a weighted chain connected to a girder, along with start and stop lines marked prominently in bold on a wooden stud, which in conjunction indicates the progress of the desired floor movement.
As required, two sets of entrance doors are present in the auditorium with the prominent central doors being of no use with the floor is in the raised position. (fig. 9) The original wrought-iron-and-wood opera house chairs-held in place by a unique brass “T” floor connector (fig.10)-are ganged in groups of three or four for ease of removal and storage. While at one time designated rooms housed the seats when not in use, currently the bulk of the seats when removed go to the stage and backstage areas to be covered by a mid-stage black curtain and only a limited number are placed in a storage area under the stage largely taken over by HVAC equipment installed during restoration. Experience dictates that the chairs remain in place as the floor lowers because the additional weight is needed for the system to work efficiently.
Seemingly every success story has at least one miraculous escape and the Rochester facility is no different. City officials scheduled alterations in 1940 to include transforming the auditorium area into two levels of needed office space. This plan required the removal of all the equipment for the raising and lowering of the floor and also having the floor remain permanently supported in the horizontal position. Due to a lack of funds these changes were not carried out and only a new central stairway was constructed following side stairwells being removed for new offices. With additional modifications over the years, the house count has been reduced to the present day level of 850 seats. Fortunately the floor mechanism survived intact awaiting its eventual rebirth. Years later, form 1960 to 1972, the Rochester Music Theater organization mounted musicals in the facility for a period of twelve seasons, but eventually - following years of professional and amateur entertainment, civic and community functions, and even high school basketball games - the Opera House quietly closed its doors, seemingly for good, in the early - 1970’s.
RESTORATION OF THE OPERA HOUSE
Initial renovation plans in the mid-1980s were fronted by members of both the Rochester Heritage Trust and the Arts Rochester organization. An early challenge facing these groups was to uncover and fully appreciate the mechanics present in the unique moving floor system. Understanding such complexities was aided considerably by an extensive study finished in June 1985 by Nancy Alberto and Heidi Barrett, students of the Department of Civil Engineering at the nearby University of New Hampshire at Durham. Additional restoration analysis in October 1987 from a professional engineering firm called for the daunting task of replacing the wooden girders with steel ones to address carrying capacity requirement. At this same time, estimates ranging up to 1.2 million dollars were floated as necessary to return the auditorium to use and also establish an endowment fund for maintenance and program scheduling. Due, in large part, to the enormity of the task and associated costs, this first restoration effort was able only to accomplish some improvements to meet fire and safety codes, plus sorely needed audience amenities. Additional efforts languished for another decade before restoration efforts would fully capture the spirit and energy of the citizens of Rochester.
By 1996 a renewed effort to resurrect the Opera House took shape following the election of Harvey Bernier, Jr. to the office of mayor. During the campaign Bernier made the restoration of the Opera House a rallying cry for the community and upon election he made good on his promise, believing that the first step in the successful return of the venue would be placing the right individuals in key leadership positions (Bernier 2006). Chief among the volunteers assembled by the new mayor was George Allen, named to be Chairman of the Opera House Restoration Committee. Allen, a retired professional engineer, had founded OASIS Alignment Services, which is in the business of providing precision alignment of large web production equipment, such as printing presses, as well as other rotating machinery. Following careful study of previous engineering reports and firsthand exploration of the space, Allen determined that restoration was indeed possible and he turned to the employees of OASIS (which maintains corporate offices in Rochester area) for assistance. Due to considerable interest, however, a lottery was required to determine the four employees to work on the project. (Volunteers of record include Don Allen, Bruce Littlefield, Dan O’Reilly and Jeff Trueworthy.) Restoration efforts of the key mechanics included the general cleaning of all parts, careful inspection for wear or breakage, the repacking of bearings, and the proper alignment of components, especially the essential line shaft. Allen reports that none of the gears and major structural elements needed replacement; only new leather drive belts. Also, the two-phase motor was rewired to meet applicable codes (Allen 2006).
Beyond this key volunteer work on the heart of the system, professional contractors were responsible for various vital needs during the restoration which benefited both the Opera House and the entire City Hall, including necessary roof repair, a fire sprinkler system, much needed HVAC work, and asbestos removal. Additionally, a major building enlargement was completed to expand city council chambers on the ground level, which in turn, provided much needed backstage support areas on the upper levels (fig.11).
One must not underestimate, however, the very significant grassroots effort by the citizens of Rochester to refurbish and redecorate the auditorium, including the duplication of the prominent Victorian stenciling of yesteryear. Shown in figure 13 is a fragment of the original stenciling hidden by construction during the 1940’s while figure 12 highlights carefully recreated stenciling. Changing the color scheme of the auditorium from the picket fence white and pale sky blue of a previous redecoration, back to the original color scheme of a light sienna, accented by shades of burgundy, turquoise, forest green, and burnished gold occupied a small army of volunteers over a period of months. Figure 14 reveals the details of the original proscenium arch, painstakingly recovered from under at least four layers of paint. And at times assistance came from unexpected sources. According to George Allen, the noted youth touring group, “Up With People,” not only were first to perform in the Opera House during the active restoration period, but the company began the repainting of the auditorium during their accompanying community day of service. In all, impressive statistics were generated during the restoration: eighteen months of effort, with over $300,000 in donated cash and materials (above and beyond the infrastructure improvement carried out an paid for by the city), and 10,000 hours of volunteer labor.
By 1997, following nearly a quarter century of dormancy, the Rochester Opera House once again opened its doors to the public due to determined and tireless community effort and government leadership. And while this result in itself is of primary importance, in recognition of the restoration of the Opera House, the City of Rochester received the 1997 Governor’s Arts Award for Community Spirit from then New Hampshire’s Governor Jeanne Shaheen.
And where does the Rochester Opera House find itself today? The 2006-2007 season marks a decade of returning to performance scheduling by nearly doubling the number of shows offered in the immediate previous season. And while the fly system remains a classic arrangement of hemp lines and sand bags, the current season promises a full slate of theatre performances, major touring artists, and perennial favorites such as Natalie MacMaster and Tommy Makem. In addition, increased family-oriented shows are scheduled. And, of course, planning is underway to commemorate the centennial of the Cith Hall and Opera House in 2008. None of which seemed remotely possible during my first tentative and dusty explorations in 1989 of a space largely given over to pigeons and falling plaster. Fortunately, the Rochester Opera House of Rochester, New Hampshire has been reborn and its legacy continues as the last historic moving floor in action.
Landis K Magnuson is the former chair of the English department and director of the Anselmian Abbey Players at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH. His book, Circle Stock Theatre: Touring American Small Towns, 1900-1960 was designated by Choice as an Outstanding Academic Book. Personal scholarship has centered on popular entertainment forms such as vaudeville, the Chautauqua movement, and repertoire theatre. He is currently studying Swedish-dialect comedy and its impact upon Swedish immigrants.
Special thanks must be extended to a number of individuals connected with the restoration and operation of the Rochester Opera House, especially Susan Page, Tommy Hensel, Anthony Ejarque, George Allen, Harvey Bernier Jr., and John Nolan.
Adams, George G. 1887. “Device for Raising and Lowering Floors of Theatres
and Halls” U.S. Patten No. 366290. Filed 8 May 1886, Granted 12 July 1887.
Allen, George. 2006 Phone Interview, 15 June
Anderson, Bart 2005. E-mail to the author, 9 October
Bernier, Jr., Harvey. 2006 Phone Interview, 28 June
Zivanovic, Judith K., ed. 1988. Opera Houses of the Midwest.
Mid-America Theatre Conference , 84.