This summer, Jones Hall continues major renovations that will aim to improve acoustics, backstage technology, ADA accessibility, restrooms, and more – and potentially help Houston arts groups recover from the pandemic.
The projected $50 million renovation plan – which builds upon renovations made in 2020 and 2021 – will take place primarily in summer months over coming years, as recently announced by the Foundation for Jones Hall. Organizers are hopeful the work will be completed by 2024, according to the Houston Chronicle.
This multiyear approach works around resident arts organizations’ seasons, allowing them to carry on full performance schedules in order to recoup some of the significant financial losses sustained from COVID-19.
The Houston Symphony – which is based in Jones Hall, along with Performing Arts Houston (the former, recently renamed Society for the Performing Arts) – estimates that it lost about $9 million in ticket revenue between March 2020 to September 2021 due to cancelation of shows and performances to very reduced audiences for social distancing.
“Rather than close Jones Hall for a full year or more, this project will be done over a series of summers to allow the Symphony to have its full regular season in Jones Hall, its performance home, without disruption,” said the Houston Symphony in an email.
While Performing Arts Houston says it’s grateful for the support of federal pandemic-related programs, donors, and foundations during COVID, its ticket revenue also took “an extreme hit.”
“In a normal season, almost 70% of our revenue comes from ticket sales, and that revenue came to a full stop in March 2020. It was almost 19 months before we returned to live performances,” said Performing Arts Houston in an email to Houston Arts Journal.
“We look forward to Jones Hall improvements to enhance the audience experience to help us grow our ticket revenue back to normal levels and beyond,” said Performing Arts Houston.
Both arts groups point out that the renovations will benefit patrons as well as performers, thus attracting both back to the venue – and potentially strengthening ticket sales, plus diversity and quality of programming.
“Returning audiences will see exciting changes to this iconic Houston structure, updates that many have looked forward to for years,” stated Performing Arts Houston. “And with an improved audience experience, we expect new attendees will be more likely to return again and again.”
For summer 2022, work in Jones Hall will include:
- Refinishing of the stage floor and rebuilding of orchestra pit floors
- Replacement of hydraulic lifts for the orchestra pit with a new lifting system, allowing for gentle, quiet movement and stable support of the stage and orchestra pit
- Work to replumb and redirect cable and conduit, while removing electrical equipment to further modernize infrastructure
- Replacement of the audio network, which consists of the equipment and data network that support amplified performances, to further revamp acoustics in the hall for musicians and patrons
By the end of 2023 and beyond, expected improvements will include:
- Renovations to the Green Room, lobby, and other public spaces, easing lobby congestion and traffic flow throughout the facility; lobby layout to be expanded, along with aesthetic transformation
- New seats installed in the concert hall
- ADA improvements made for greater wheelchair accessibility
- Restrooms added, expanded, and relocated, including those on the courtyard level; restrooms accessible by only a short flight of stairs, rather than a long walk up and down, with widened stairways between levels
- State of the art lighting and rigging systems to improve the efficiency of backstage work
- New stage automation control to modernize how large pieces of scenery, electrics, and audio-visual components are used in the venue
- Introduction of fiber networks to enable the hall to unitize the full potential of entertainment industry technology
These renovations come at a time when Houstonians are eager to return to live performances, as evidenced by public response to the 2021-2022 season – the first full, in person season for both the Houston Symphony and Performing Arts Houston, following the pandemic’s nearly two-year disruption to the arts.
“Ticket demand has already rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, and the Symphony hopes to continue expanding audiences,” said the Houston Symphony, adding:
“Improvements to Jones Hall support those efforts as they will not only improve audience experience, but also improve the acoustics and artist experience which will enable us to continue to attract the best musicians and guest artists to Houston.”
An updated Jones Hall may also attract the public’s overall return to Houston’s Theater District, whose parking revenue fell about 45% during the pandemic. Revenue from the Theater District Parking Garage dropped from $9.8 million in 2019 to $5.3 million in 2021, according to figures provided by Houston First.
“Houston has a dynamic and robust love for the arts, which are an integral part of our city’s identity and essential to the quality of life,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press release. “Every Houstonian will benefit from this magnificent project.”
The Foundation for Jones Hall, the nonprofit overseeing the renovations, has currently raised $25.5 million toward the $50 million project through its ongoing capital campaign “Overture to the Future.” Donors to date include an anonymous donor, Houston Endowment, the Robert and Jane Cizik family, Janet Clark, Nancy and Chuck Davidson, the Shirley and David Toomin family, and the City of Houston.
“Jones Hall has stood the test of time and gave rise to the Downtown Theater District over 50 years ago,” said Barbara McCelvey, the foundation’s board president, in a press release. “We are thrilled to be making this new investment in the Hall so that it can serve millions of artists and the public for the next 50 and beyond.”
The venue’s post-pandemic future includes virtual offerings, which are here to stay– and the technological renovations will benefit those digital options as well.
Since July 2020, the Houston Symphony has livestreamed performances from Jones Hall, and it says it will continue doing so in 2023 and beyond, having developed a loyal virtual audience outside Texas and the U.S.
“The new renovations of Jones Hall include a substantial investment to improve audio/visual capabilities throughout the facility, bringing those systems up to the latest standards … [and] will provide very noticeable improvements in the experiences that our audiences will enjoy both in person and via livestream,” said the Houston Symphony.
Cautiously optimistic, Performing Arts Houston notes that theaters are filling up, but not at pre-pandemic attendance levels – yet:
“Enthusiasm for returning to the theater is continuing to grow … We will have to wait a few more years to enjoy the full benefits of the renovations, but the momentum of support for a thriving and enduring performing arts culture in Houston is continuing to build.”