An Update to Seat Restoration at the Byrd

Seating Restoration at the Byrd Theatre in 2017

The Byrd is executing the first phase of a multi-pronged interior rehabilitation of the facility designed to increase patron comfort and accessibility. 

Theaters in the 1920s were designed to maximize seating to meet tremendous demand. Our seats are the original ones and are extremely cramped. As our many patrons are well aware they are also in poor condition after nearly 90 years of use. Seating capacity at the Byrd Theatre is currently about 916 of the first floor and about 462 in the balcony for a total of about 1,378.  The result, given current demand for conventional film showings is that the theater often feels empty even when accommodating an audience that meets the expectations of the theater management. 

The seat rehabilitation program will eventually include new seats in the entire first floor, reducing from around 916 to around 750. Part of this reduction is a result of the addition of wheelchair accessible platforms at the rear of the theatre, needed to accommodate handicapped patrons. We can’t provide seating for wheelchairs toward the front of the auditorium because the aisle floors slope too much to meet code requirements. 

Row-to-row spacing will be improved and seats themselves will be wider. Otherwise the seats will appear almost the same as our historic seats. We are replacing the only center panel of seats at this time, using the Virginia Rehabilitation Code, which permits us to replace only a portion of the seats to begin with.  The plans prepared by the Irwin Seating Co. which recently purchased the company that provide the original seats, include very comfortable upholstery and new cup holders. 

As replaced in 2017, the central panel of seats includes 273 seats. There will be 386 seats on the sides when those are replaced for a total of 659. The plans for the balcony include 384 in the balcony proper plus 45 in boxes for a total of 429. The total after replacement will be 1,088.

The schedule calls for the seats to be in place by the end of the summer. The seven back rows of the central section were removed last Friday, along with the ornamental cast iron end panels from both sides of the center section. The end panels have been sent to the factory to be refinished in their original colors that were selected by the Brounet Studio, the original decorators of the theater.  They will be retuned to their original locations with the new seating. Construction of the wheelchair seating area will begin in the coming month.

The remaining seats will be removed completely around July 20th. One of the most significant barriers to re-spacing the seats is the existence of over 80 small cast iron “Mushrooms” in the floor under some of the seats. These pull the heated or cooled air from the inlets in the ceiling down to the floor and ensure that everyone is equally comfortable and there are no hot or cold spots.  In order to prevent tripping over the mushrooms, most of which will be exposed by the shifting of the seats, more than fifty of them must be relocated, requiring drilling more than 50 new holes and filling the same number of old ones. This has added considerably to the cost of the project, which will cost a total of $126,362 plus $22,000 for the wheelchair platform. 

Before the new seats arrive the concrete floor will be carefully cleaned and prepared and a new, durable epoxy finish applied. During the interim, seating will be opened in the balcony so that the theater will not need to close during the work. The new seats will ship from the factory about August 20 and will installed immediately after they arrive. The result will be one that we have all dreamed about for so long! 

At the same time, we will be adding an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible family restroom off the Foyer. This new facility, will, for the first time, allow us to accommodate all of our patrons within the limited space available within our facility. The cost of this new restroom is $38,000.

We are grateful to our generous funders: the Pauley Family and Morgan Foundation for the restroom and wheelchair platform, the Windsor, Roller–Bottimore, Herndon, and Davenport Foundations for the new seating, and the Greenway Pendleton Foundation for support for the entire project.