Antinozzi Associates Chose Downtown Location in “Center of Everything”

Antinozzi Associates – March 29, 2012, Bridgeport, CT – Patrons of the newly renovated Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport have raved about the ambiance of the theater interior, but few likely know the architects who designed it with developer Phil Kuchma are a flight of stairs away.

Antinozzi Associates not only helped Kuchma design the Bijou, believed to be the oldest movie theater in the United States, but the firm also turned a former ballroom above the 103-year-old theater into its architectural offices and designed the layout of apartments and retail spaces in Kuchma’s block-long Bijou Square development on Fairfield Avenue.

“It’s a combination of The Cabaret and The Playhouse,” George J. Perham, a principal and vice president of Antinozzi Associates, said of the Bijou Theatre, referring to the Downtown Cabaret Theatre on Golden Hill Street and The Playhouse on the Green’s former home on State Street.

F. Michael Ayles, also a principal at Antinozzi Associates, said the 56-year-old firm moved from Stratford to Fairfield Avenue in 2007 because its principals liked the location of Kuchma’s downtown building and the wide-open space on the second floor.

“Also, as I think we’re starting to see, finally, it’s just the general location of Bridgeport as it blooms and regenerates itself,” he said. ” It’s great being in the center of everything. It’s very nice to have a space like this, where people feel very welcome to walk in, and we’re down the street from a lot of our clients in Bridgeport.”

Antinozzi was heavily invested in the Park City long before it left Stratford, having designed City Hall on Lyon Terrace, the Police Department, Railroad Station, Central Avenue Fire Station, Dinan Memorial Center on Bond Street, Mercy Learning Center, St. Augustine Cathedral, St. Mary’s Church.

The firm also designed many schools, including Longfellow Elementary, East Side Middle School, Dunbar Elementary, Read Elementary/Middle School, Geraldine Johnson School and South End School. It is now designing the new Roosevelt Elementary School on Park Avenue, where construction is scheduled to begin this fall.

Outside Bridgeport, the firm designed an addition and renovations at Oxford High School and Platt High School in Meriden, and one of its biggest projects is Wilton Corporate Park, which involves additions and renovations totaling 600,000 square feet.

 The firm turned a former ballroom above the 103-year-old Bijou Theatre into its architectural offices and designed the layout of apartments and retail spaces in Phil Kuchma’s block-long Bijou Square development on Fairfield Avenue.

Antinozzi’s design of Kuchma’s development was somewhat unique because the firm’s work, from a revenue standpoint, is evenly divided between corporate/financial clients and schools, Perham said.

“The schools are big contracts,” Ayles said. “You might have four schools that are 60% of your revenue. It could be four schools and 25 other clients — from a dollar point of view, it’s pretty much half.”

But the firm, which employs 30 people, didn’t do much to the former ballroom. The most significant changes included removing three tiers of balcony seating and installing work stations in their place; repairing fire damage in a corner and the former ballroom’s floor; and ensuring the HVAC system evenly distributed heat and air-conditioning, Ayles said.

“It was more of a functional renovation, to make it useable,” Ayles said. “It was a big, open space, and, ultimately, we wanted to keep it that way.”

Perham said no partition in Antinozzi’s headquarters is higher than 42 inches, so staff and visitors can see the entire ballroom when they enter. “It definitely puts a smile on your face when you walk in in the morning,” he said.

Kuchma said Antinozzi Associates adds another creative element to downtown Bridgeport and contributes to “a real mix of businesses, residents and visitors.”

“All these elements need to work together to make this the kind of urban neighborhood people are interested in, and it’s working very well,” Kuchma said.

Antinozzi Associates’ move to Bridgeport after 50 years in Stratford came about a year before the economy crashed, and the firm, after seeing work on schools and new office buildings dry up, was forced to lay off 50% of its workforce, Ayles and Perham said.

Perham, who’s been with Antinozzi Associates for nearly 40 years, said he’s been through four recessions in his career and the most recent one was “by far the worst one.”

“Quite frankly, what kept us afloat was the corporate side — moving or downsizing,” Perham said.

But the recession enabled Antinozzi Associates to focus more on marketing, and Perham said that’s now paying dividends. He said the firm was coming out of the recession well-positioned and will be bigger, in terms of employees and volume of work, than in the past.

Satellite office

In January, Antinozzi opened a satellite office in Norwalk in the Merritt 7 complex of office buildings, where the firm was retained for on-call design services. Perham said the firm has a three-year lease for the Norwalk space, which is home to two interior designers, and has “a lot of work coming out of there.”

Although technology enables people to communicate well from a distance, nothing beats a physical presence and face-to-face meetings, Perham said. “We talk about technology and how the world is getting smaller, but when you’re not there, people don’t think of you,” he said. “I’m amazed at the number of [Norwalk] developers calling us to do work.

Perham said Antinozzi wouldn’t have gotten the job of designing apartments and retail space in Kuchma’s Bijou Square development if the firm were still in Stratford. “It’s the physical presence, not just the technological presence. The physical presence makes a big difference,” Ayles said.

While Antinozzi Associates is poised for growth, Perham said the firm doesn’t want to get too big. “The thing I’ve always loved about the firm is its size,” he said. “Here…I know everybody. The principals are always involved, from the beginning to the end, with the project.”

Dan Antinozzi, who founded the firm, saw the value in a smaller architectural firm, and Antinozzi Associates never had more than 12 employees before its founder retired. During his 35-year career, Dan Antinozzi designed more than 30 Catholic churches, and he began designing schools at a time when only three or four architectural firms in the state did that kind of work, Perham said.

Paul Antinozzi, a principal in the firm and Dan’s son, decided to grow the firm after his father retired through a renewed focus on marketing, expanding the firm’s identity and bringing on junior partners, Perham said. “We’re a good technical firm and were never really known for being a design firm. We changed that, and wanted to expand the firm to be bigger, to go up against large firms,” Perham said. “We wanted to be known for being a little more cutting edge.”

Antinozzi Associates designs both renovations and new construction and each pose unique challenges, Perham said.

Architects may have more freedom with new construction, but their ideas need approval from municipal building committees and land-use commissions, and, if they’re designing a new school, they have to work within program requirements of a board of education. They also have to be conscious of the building’s impact on nearby homeowners, Ayles said.

“Working with neighbors is really critical with a school project. You work with the neighborhood and get all their input and try to incorporate it all in,” Ayles said. “You can’t just put a school project out there and say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ The people occupying it have to be totally bought into what you’re doing.”

Sometimes, the vision of an architect isn’t the same as the vision of his client.

In 2002, Antinozzi Associates was hired to design Glen Ridge School in Hamden after town and school officials decided to demolish the original elementary school, which was built in 1924, Ayles said.

The Whitney Avenue property was part way between commercial and residential sections of town, so Paul Antinozzi decided to build a three-story academic wing on the commercial side, and three smaller buildings, which resemble little school houses, on the residential side. He wanted each little school house to be painted in a primary color — red, yellow and blue — but the building committee wouldn’t go along with it, Ayles said.

“The building committee fought us tooth and nail. They didn’t want the bright colors. It ended up all brick,” Ayles said.

With renovations, particularly on old buildings, architects don’t know what contractors will find when they begin removing walls and ripping up floors, Ayles said.

“They both have their challenges; just different challenges,” Perham said. He said the state of Connecticut views renovations as more difficult and allows architectural firms doing public projects to charge more for them.

New construction wasn’t always so challenging from a design point of view.

Train station

Perham and Paul Antinozzi worked as draftsmen on the Bridgeport train station in the 1970s, and it was built in a simple, unornamented style. “When the train station was done, it was designed in a very brutalist manner. That was the style back then,” Ayles said.

But the train station construction had challenges due to elevations of the railroad tracks and water table, and the floor was actually hung from the roof, Perham said. “It was quite a structural feat back in its time,” he said.

The state Department of Transportation and city of Bridgeport are now doing a feasibility study to remodel the train station’s exterior so it has a more welcoming and lighter appearance, and Antinozzi Associates won the job. “From a fee point of view, we basically gave it away,” Perham said. He said Antinozzi’s principals didn’t want another firm to remodel the train station.

Perham and Ayles said they admire a lot of the city’s architecture, which Kuchma said was spared from demolition during the “urban renewal days” of the 1960s because the city’s downtown was small, and developers weren’t especially interested in Bridgeport.

Ayles said Bridgeport still has undeveloped land, such as the proposed Steel Point development that hasn’t moved forward, as well as an “incredible stock…of buildings from the industrial age that are just screaming to be renovated and turned into lofts.” But many of those properties are contaminated by industrial pollutants and would be expensive to clean up, he said.

Article by Andrew Brophy

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