Houston Venues Recover From Hurricane Harvey

Wortham Theater Center sets date for return in recovery from Harvey flooding

  • by Tom Gresham
  • Published: December 6, 2017

Wortham Theatre Center, Houston, will repoen Sept. 1, 2018.

Wortham Theater Center, Houston,  has announced plans to reopen Sept. 1, 2018, only days after the one-year anniversary of when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas and caused widespread flooding that led to extensive water-related damages to the performing arts center.

The Wortham Center, which was built in 1987 in downtown Houston’s Theater District, has been closed since Harvey struck. The venue holds two theaters and serves as the home for both the Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet. The city of Houston owns the facility, and the Houston First Corporation operates it.

Peter McStravick, chief development officer for Houston First, said the venue’s importance to the area makes its recovery a top priority.

“The Wortham Center really is one of the cultural gems of the region and it’s very important to get it back up to speed,” McStravick said. “It’s taking lots of hours and lots of smart, dedicated and talented people to work on this, but Houston First is honored and committed to be a part of this work.”

The Wortham Center’s challenges are the result of flooding that saw 12 feet of water gather in the venue’s basement area. The basement contained all of the facility’s life safety systems and almost 30 percent of the air handling units. In addition, during the process of identifying the extent of the damage, workers found floodwater had permeated wall cavities in the basement and contaminated insulation. Structural steel columns in the basement also were compromised and insulation located inside the columns were contaminated. Finally, the majority of the electrical conduits located in the basement were damaged and will require replacement.

McStravick said the process of surveying and accounting for the damage the floodwaters caused has been a time-consuming one, complicated by the limited space in the basement that prevents a large group of workers from tackling the project simultaneously. Houston First previously had announced a best-case opening date of May 2018. As the scope of the damage became more clear, however, the organization pushed it back to September.

The Wortham Center largely escaped major repair needs to its performance areas. However, the flooding caused extensive damage to the Houston Grand Opera’s costume shop and wig and makeup departments, resulting in the loss of the majority of its wig stock and most of its footwear and millinery, said Perryn Leech, managing director of the Houston Grand Opera. In addition, Leech said, the company lost two vehicles. He estimated the opera’s total financial losses at approximately $6.6 million.

Both the Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet were able to find alternative, temporary venues. The ballet is performing primarily at the Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land, a concert hall outside of Houston, and the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, McStravick said. The opera was unable to find a venue that could both meet its technical needs and be available for the extended time it needed. Instead, the company built a temporary theater in an exhibit hall at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which Houston First also operates.

Leech said the opera was “thrilled” to find the temporary space in such difficult circumstances.

“We have been fortunate to relocate almost all of our season to this hall, which we have named HGO Resilience Theater, without changing or losing any performances,” Leech said. “We are still waiting to hear about the spring productions, but are hoping that we can stay in the GRB through that period.”  

McStravick said the Wortham Center was the large venue in Houston hit hardest by Harvey. Other large venues took some damages but were able to reopen. For instance, the Alley Theatre, an indoor theater located downtown, reopened Nov. 24. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, which Houston First also operates, had water in its basement but was back to hosting performances in October. In addition, Houston First reopened the Theater District underground parking garages on Nov. 23 — floodwaters had filled the garage’s three levels with more than 270 million gallons of water.

Carolyn Campbell, director of communications for Houston First, said strong philanthropic and community support for the Wortham Center and the Houston arts community at large has provided a boost. Among other ongoing efforts, individuals and organizations have contributed to a recovery fund designated for arts programs in the area.

“I’ve just never seen the kind of cooperation and cohesiveness that I’ve seen after Harvey,” Campbell said. “It’s been an attitude of as one group goes, so goes the entire Theater District. It’s required everyone to work together and be exceptionally patient, and they’ve done that to help each other out.”

Leech said the opera has benefited from that type of community-mindedness through its travails.

“We have had tremendous support from our neighbors and colleagues in the cultural community,” Leech said. “The Hobby Center volunteered to host our computer servers and customer care team, and we were able to use rehearsal space in Bayou Place, Opera in the Heights, St. Mark’s Church, and Rice University’s Shepherd School, among others. Recently, one of our board members has given us the use of a building he owns that was formerly a YWCA. This is tremendously helpful for rehearsals and coachings.”

McStravick said it is too early to provide an estimate for the total cost of the recovery effort at the Wortham Center. The work will include identifying how floodwater created so much havoc and pursuing mitigation improvements that could help prevent a repeat of the event. McStravick said Houston First will consider whether it can make any improvements identified in its 2015 master plan while it is unable to stage performances, but he said the organization will not risk any nonessential projects that could delay the opening beyond Sept. 1.

“We don’t want to be sidelined by improvements that could take place afterward,” he said. “This work is about getting the opera and the ballet back in that building as fast as possible so that things are back to normal again.”

 

  • by Tom Gresham
  • Published: December 6, 2017