Renovations get major role in 2019 Folger Shakespeare season

The stately gray stone walls of the Folger Shakespeare Library on East Capitol Street have graced Capitol Hill since 1932, when Shakespeare collector Emily Folger saw her husband Henry’s vision of a “gift to America” to completion.

The library building that houses the “world’s largest Shakespeare collection” has undergone few major structural changes over the years. Today, its great hall, adorned with Tudor-style oak paneling and a vaulted white ceiling, serves as a meeting, concession and exhibition space.

But with subdued lighting from outside meant to protect exhibition items in a concession space, the current building “doesn’t represent a lot of the way we experience museums now,” according to Folger’s head of external relations, Garland Scott.

That’s why the library will close on March 2, 2020 for two years for $38 million in extensive renovations that will include a 12,000-square-foot pavilion with two new exhibition halls beneath the existing structure.

The library’s theater will stage performances of Henry IV Part OneAmadeus and The Merry Wives of Windsor this season before closing.

Despite the renovations, “Folger is by no means slowing down,” Scott told Capital News Service.

She said Folger-sponsored concerts and talks would be held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Capitol Hill during construction. The Folger’s scholar programs would “go on the road” and stop in Syracuse, New York, this spring, Scott added.

The library’s new entrances will feature sloping gardens with wheelchair ramps that direct patrons toward the building’s basement expansion. Inside, the underground space will host a new great hall devoted to Shakespeare as well as the Mimi Rose Rare Book Manuscript and Exhibition Hall, showcasing early modern texts.

Philadelphia architectural firm KiernanTimberlake – which designed the new U.S. Embassy in London – will be at the helm of the Folger’s renovations, Scott said.

The two new halls will add 6,000 square feet of gallery space and include digital interactive exhibits to engage today’s students. The library’s staff “want to make the Folger a place for 21st century people to experience Shakespeare and his world,” Scott said.

The current structure was designed by French-American architect Paul Cret. It was dedicated April 23, 1932 – also believed to be the date of Shakespeare’s birthday. In 1969, the library was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The building’s dedication capped decades of Henry and Emily Folger’s work to amass a vast collection of Shakespeare texts and artifacts. Henry became president of the Standard Oil Company of New York in 1911, which provided him with the resources to pursue collecting and eventually pursue a building to host his collection.

Scott said the Folgers stopped at Union Station during a train trip to Hot Springs, Virginia, and chose a site one block from the United States Capitol to build their library.

Despite having had heating, cooling and other infrastructure improvements over the years, the Cret building has had limited structural expansion and upkeep. The renovation will “benefit school groups,” Scott said, and with better WiFi and updated study rooms and meeting spaces, she expects the completions to be “very 21st century.”

Peter Eramo, the Folger’s events publicity and marketing manager, said the theater will continue productions while the main building undergoes renovations. While he said most productions will be in Washington, “one might be in Maryland.”

The Folger’s theatrical season began Sept. 3, with performances of Henry IV Part One, directed by Rosa Joshi.

Mainstay Washington actor Edward Gero delivered a standout performance as Falstaff on Sept. 7, delivering lines like, “And I prithee, sweet wag, when thou art king, as God save thy Grace—Majesty, I should say, for grace thou wilt have none—” with swift, verbal, one-two punches.

Journeyman actor Avery Whitted of Brooklyn, New York, likewise infused levity and intensity into his Hal, with rebukes including: “Unless hours were cups of sack.. and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.”

Henry IV Part One will run through Oct. 13. Amadeus will follow Nov. 5 through Dec. 22, and The Merry Wives of Windsor Jan. 14 to March 1 before renovations begin.

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