David Rockwell Brings the Spirit of Broadway to the Civilian Hotel

After a prolific career in both stage and hospitality design, the architect's two worlds collide at this theatrical hub for the playbill set in New York's Theater District.

The three arch motif recurs throughout the 203-room property. The arches, Rockwell says, recall the design of the historic Martin Beck Theatre, now the Hirschfeld. (Photo by Johnny Miller.)

David Rockwell has another Broadway hit on his hands. No surprise there: the architect and designer has amassed six Tony Award nominations—winning one—over a storied career that has seen his name appear in nearly 70 playbills, while also leading his prolific firm Rockwell Group known the world over for envisioning narrative-driven hospitality and culture spaces.  But never before has he achieved a simultaneous triple-threat feat of design like this.  The Rockwell-designed “Take Me Out” is a smash hit on Broadway. It’s running at the Rockwell-designed Hayes Theater. Just a few blocks away is the just-opened Rockwell-designed Broadway paean of a hotel, Civilian

Taking its stance with instant confidence on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, the 203-room Civilian is not just a hotel amid the Theater District; it is a distinctly theatrical hotel, one that demonstrates a love for the stage in a celebration of the energy, history, and future of Broadway as nothing in New York has ever done. Upon entering, one has the sense that you’ve arrived as a special guest backstage. From a curtain-draped circular stair for very grand entrances to vintage lobby seating sourced from a historic Buffalo theater, this isn’t lowbrow “jukebox” Broadway; it’s an homage to the uniquely Manhattan experience of great theater and design as can only be found in the breathing fantasy of Rockwell’s New York.

There is comfort in the grown-up defiance of the property. No matter how much noise, carnival, disagreement, and distraction exist in the Times Square streets around it, Civilian takes the stand that we can have a thoughtful, indulgent refuge to celebrate the temporal experience of the theater and the joy of finding a place to stay where anyone who loves the moment before the curtain rises will find themselves warmly welcomed.

David Rockwell inside the bar at the Civilian (Photo by Santiago Felipe.)

With Rockwell’s considered vision around every turn, there is a sense of discovery and sophistication, informed by his deeply theater-literate sense of experience and empathy. The Civilian is the Broadway hotel New York needed and always deserved.

Inside, guests find a supremely curated collection of Broadway memorabilia, drawings, photography, and design references to some of the theater industry’s most revered temples, but this is no sleepy museum. Civilian is replete with an already beloved,  piano-equipped Broadway community watering hole and a soon-to-open restaurant, Rosevale Kitchen and Cocktail Room, which will be warmly lit by custom fixtures featuring sketches of  the 41 theaters that make up the Broadway universe, courtesy of acclaimed set designers like Tony Walton and Mimi Lien. Scenic Art Studios, a practice that has painted big-name productions like “Moulin Rouge” and “Pretty Woman,” contributed a site-specific mural.   

As the hotel opens its doors, Surface got a first-hand tour of the property from Rockwell himself and learned  how his nomadic youth and years of theatrical design experience contributed to his ground-up vision for Civilian.

The property's theatrical interior spaces. (Guest room and lobby photos by Johnny Miller. Sconce detail photo by Paul Warchol.)

Your use of scale is a signature of your work in the theater. In particular, using layers of storytelling detail in the foreground, and silhouette in back such as the baseball stadium in “Take Me Out” and the New York City Skyline in “Tootsie.” There’s a sense of discovery that you want a theatergoer to have, and you’ve always incorporated multiple layers of perspective. How does that come to life here at Civilian?

That’s really about depth. This project was an opportunity to put together my major loves, which is very rare. It came about because these guys were building a small hotel on 48th street, and they came to me asking what kind of hotel it should be. I said it should be about the neighborhood. This is the chance to do the thing everyone talks about, which is to have an authentic point of view. Authenticity and differentiation are something hotels seek all the time. 

They went for that idea, and the next step was to say, in some ways this should be a portrait of the neighborhood. I’ve always had this fascination with the relationship of theater and architecture because theater is ephemeral, but all of those memories last forever.

I’ve been a student of those devices of scale, distance, entrance, choreography, backstory—such an important part of theater. The idea of backstory is a way to make every design decision non-arbitrary, it’s just something that’s been with me since I was a student. I couldn’t get my mind around developing a project in school where I didn’t develop a point of view or backstory because that was how I drove meaning.

What’s your process for creating that backstory? For a piece of theater that exists somewhat in the page, but when you’re crafting something new does a hotel have the same backstory?

In this case every design move, in some ways, is a detail to take you behind the scenes and backstage in the kind of world you never get invited into. You emerge into a point of view from all of the conditions of the project. It’s a narrow building; it’s a ground-up building. So that allowed us to craft the scale and feeling of backstage spaces. Then we took all of these great artists whose work is temporal, gave them a home, and created a one-of-a-kind collection of about 350 pieces of art.

A collection of artworks line the walls of the bar and lounge. (Photo by Johnny Miller.)

You’ve spoken about your rather nomadic childhood. People who have experienced that, I think, find a sense of home in more temporal experiences. Do you think the lack of a single long-time home heightened your love of these kinds of spaces?

I do. I also think that everyone has early experiences that kind of seared themselves in their memory. Early on when I was three or four we moved with my four older brothers from Chicago to the Jersey Shore and the community theater my mother helped start was this very public space that everyone wanted to participate in. Everyone came together to make something, and I quickly realized my interest was in making those environments that bring people together. Back then it was lemonade stands, low-tech Rube Goldberg contraptions, and the community theater. 

That all got kind of shaken up because we moved when I was still relatively young to Mexico, and that certainly gave me a large dose of “new”: the excitement of new, the transition of loving theater to loving public [spaces]. It was like the Jersey Shore turned inside out where everything was about the public realm, so all of that factored into my intrinsic belief in the way spaces can create community. It’s what I love about New York. You’ve got so many people rubbing up against each other and that diversity leads to such a huge range of community spaces.

Is New York the ultimate temporal experience?

It is for me. I came to New York… you know certainly my New York wasn’t the New York of the cartesian grid and tall buildings. Mine was like the messy changeable ground floor—my first Broadway restaurant, my first Broadway shows were powerful experiences.

These temporal experiences, as we’ve all been locked in our homes, have taken on an additional meaning.

I totally agree. I was editing “Drama” (Phaidon) in my apartment looking out over New York and the pandemic, thinking about what New York is like with all hardware and no software. It’s been like an empty theater, and so thinking about why we’re driven to be with each other in cities, that compression, what it offers. It offers the chance to see other people’s stories and for empathy, which is something I look for in all of our buildings. It’s certainly part of the goal at Civilian: to create a place that’s driven from the experience out. 

The first Broadway show you designed, “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” was at the Circle in the Square, just about 1000 feet from Civilian. It’s a short distance but a hell of a journey, now with 50 shows under your belt. Certainly that experience is felt upon entering Civilian, a true theater-lover’s hotel created by you and the great artists around you.

I have to say what a gift as a designer this has been. I’m always looking for new challenges as opposed to something I’ve done before. In my recent book, “Drama,” in a chapter titled Ensemble, I wrote about having a beginner’s mind and the experience of working with a whole set of other people. If you take a moment in theater, the moment in “Take Me Out” when Jesse Tyler Ferguson sits center stage and talks about the baseball game, it involves sound, lighting, choreography, direction, tech, movement, acting—all of those things create one moment, which wouldn’t be able to happen if there weren’t the invitation for people to work together.

Bold prints outfit the elevators and guest room hallways. (Photos by Paul Warchol.)

That sense of collaboration really comes across in the production because of the way the tension builds. It’s an interesting play in that there’s a lot of humor in it, but it also covers some rather heavy subjects. 

And told in some very distinct fragments that you don’t weave together until the end.

Yes, and probably if someone told you the story of that play in a linear way, you’d say “that story can’t possibly be, right?” Not to spoil it for anyone who will be reading, but some very dramatic things happen along the way, more than the salacious things people hear before they arrive. (Particularly two pivotal scenes set in the team showers at the ballpark.) Light and shadow play such a huge part; the references to stadium lights that subtly change patterns, for instance. You also use a single strip of light to create a contrast and a constrained space. Do you use light at Civilian in a similar way, to create that sense of scale and shadow?

Exactly. Light is used at the Civilian to invite people in with the sparkle of the marquee and as you come in there’s the entrance to the restaurant, the entrance to the hotel. When you walk through you’ll see light and light fixtures are in some ways a major character in this particular play.

Do you consider this hotel a play? A stage?

In this case, it’s a theater and a set of stages. Whenever I take architecture students on tours of theaters, I start looking from the stage out because it’s pure potential. You know the stage has a flexibility. In this case, we’re crafting the theater and then working with [theater industry visionaries] Paul Tazewell, Clint Ramos, Jules Fisher, Christine Jones, and Patrick Pacheco to help curate this. It was an intense labor of love, and we’re still adding more.

Theater design and architecture are different toolboxes, but from my point of view what they share is some of the things I articulate in the book: love of detail. Yes, you want to wander the room but also get a feeling that you’re on a special perch. There is art in every room. A lot of the details and props in the theater are there to give the actors a complete backstory to tell their story. That’s the same in a hotel room, where you’re going to spend a night—what that light fixture is, how you turn it on, the persona you get to take on for the night.

The royal blue entrance and bar stocked with Broadway memorabilia. (Photos by Johnny Miller.)

The first show you saw as a child was “Fiddler on the Roof.” That first show changes you. Everyone who loves theater has that memory of their first show, that sense of magic. Is there a design parallel you look back upon that made you think, “I love this kind of space?”

The things that made the most impression on me early on were Times Square, public spaces, the marketplace in Guadalajara, which is one of the great marketplaces of the world. It’s a 1960’s brutalist concrete building, maybe 400,000 square feet, filled with anything you can find. It all felt like a minimalist art installation in a maximalist way. So I’m sure with that use of light and color I got very seduced by lighting and that combination of excess and minimalism, and movement and choreography.

Is there one thing when you’re visiting a hotel that makes you think ”This place is thoughtful; I’m happy to be here”?

Yes, lighting. It’s what most hotels get wrong. Many contemporary hotels have no room for recessed lighting because of the slab construction. One of the terms you hear in hotel design is that the wall covering needs to be very durable, hold up to abuse. The combination of holding up to abuse and lack of lighting above sometimes leads to a bad fluorescent lamp by each table that does nothing well.

One of the things I love in your work across theater and restaurants is that you trust me to discover the story you’re telling. There is a respect for the viewer, the experiencer, and that adds value for the one who is experiencing it. Are those touches as important in a hotel so people can have that sense of discovery?

Yes, you know (Director) Jack O’Brien gave me such great advice on Hairspray. I had gone to Baltimore, met with John Waters, listened to the score. I had filled a room with boards everywhere. I did what I tell people not to do when they come to work for us early on, which is to not put every idea into the first project. Let’s let it evolve. But of course I was so eager that I had looked at the whole musical. Jack said why don’t we take almost everything out of this room except for the few things that make you fall in love with Tracy Turnblad. And then the brilliant Jerry Mitchell talked about a different skewed perspective that we could see Tracy from. 

Mike Nichols used to say “Don’t put a hat on a hat.” If it’s a comedy, the room doesn’t necessarily need to be funny. If it’s a drama, you don’t need to replicate what the actors are saying in the set. You’re creating a setting for that jewel, and that’s very much what’s happening here. 

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