What was for years a big hole at the Santa Fe Railyard is — as of Friday, May 1 — Violet Crown Santa Fe. It’s been a 10-year wait for a new theater at the Railyard site. A story in The New Mexican in June 2005 said a new theater chain called Maya Cinemas was ready to enter into a contract with Railyard Co. LLC to build a multiplex. The Maya plan, which Railyard authorities were still talking about six years later, was for 2,000 seats in 10 auditoriums, seven of them below ground. The multiplex built by Bill Banowsky’s Violet Crown Cinemas is along similar lines: 11 screens, all but three in the basement level, but in a smaller building with only 730 seats.
This is the second Violet Crown. Banowsky developed the first several years ago, adapting an existing building. “In Austin, we transformed a 3,500-square-foot space to a 7,500-square-foot theater, and the Santa Fe theater is 34,000 square feet,” he said during an early-April walk-through in Santa Fe. The first task was to make the hole in the earth even bigger. “We went down 26 feet to create this enormous concrete substructure to accommodate eight of our 11 auditoriums.”
The new building is dramatically styled and nicely asymmetrical. Most of its front, facing on the Railyard’s plaza, is long, low, and glassy. Then there is a taller, boxlike element finished in Corten (a steel that weathers to a rusty appearance) at the north end. A general sense of horizontality is underlined by the presence of a 10-foot awning along the glazed expanse; then, at the same height, there is a thicker awning form that wraps around the Corten cube, which forms a roof over the recessed box-office entrance on the building’s north side.
Douglas Payne, of Domiteaux + Baggett Architects, Dallas, said he and his partner followed the guidelines outlined in the Railyard Master Plan, created for the recent redevelopment of the area. The three railroads that were active in Santa Fe a hundred years ago “introduced new construction materials such as large-pane glass, brick, and galvanized metal in the architectural fabric of Santa Fe,” according to the plan. The architecture of the Santa Fe Railyard “should reflect the warehouse, industrial, and commercial history of the site and the concept of an arts and cultural district,” the document adds. “New development is to be designed in simplified forms that reference the warehouse styles on the site.”
Violet Crown is relatively simple, although its masses are quite varied and are ornamented here and there with architectural grids that break up wall expanses and anchor movie posters. The building has both flat and sloped roofs, but the two roof heights at the front are in sync with those of the flanking buildings, Santa Fe Clay and Market Station. Most of the rear of the building is red stucco and gray-corrugated metal, similar to the materials and colors of the Railyard’s galleries and other nearby buildings.
The drama of the rusting box at the northeast corner continues with the material wrapping inside to the lobby and over the box office, terminating with a real design punch: what appears to be a railroad boxcar suspended above the bar. It’s a facsimile, but one having the dimensions of an actual boxcar.
Interior designer Veronica Koltuniak spent a lot of time trying to find a real boxcar and figure out the engineering necessary to suspend it. Boxcars are quite heavy. “They are, and many are filled with asbestos, and there are some real transportation and ownership problems.” “At a certain point, I had to go to plan B. Representationally, I’m never going to pull the wool over the eyes of the real train experts — the ‘foamers,’ as they call themselves — so I had to make an artistic decision that this would be a sculptural piece.”
With help from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway officials in Belen, Koltuniak was able to secure a boxcar hand brake, which she attached to the end of the sculpture so it would be visible to guests walking in from the theater lobby. “These things are federal property, and you can’t just buy them. A phone call doesn’t work. I thought, I’m never going to get this done if I’m not patient and get in someone’s face. It’s the chase. It’s putting yourself on the edge, doing something that could potentially go real bad — and that edge is where I like to do my work. That boxcar is such a major trick, but I think when you can sort of glean from an environment and choose from that without having it be like a caricature, it can work. Plus, we needed a drop ceiling over a big-ass bar.”
A few steps away is the restaurant. Its primary menu item is gourmet pizza cooked in a stone-hearth oven. “We also do salads, spring rolls, hot dogs — but everything is hand-prepared,” Banowsky said. “The menu is extensive, but it’s essentially a ‘fast-casual’ approach. You order and take a flag, and your food will be brought to you, and then you can take it into the theater — but there will be no waitstaff in the theaters.” There is also seating outdoors under the front awning.
The auditoriums are all black inside. Most have 60 seats, each one a bit larger than a traditional movie-theater seat. They recline and have tables that you can bring up and over to hold your food and drink. The seating is designed with a good vertical rise so there’s no worry about tall hair in front of you.
It would be easy to assume that the seating would be designed to hose off spilled food between shows, but that’s not necessary. “We’ve had the same situation for four years in Austin, and it’s not an issue,” Banowsky said. By upscaling the feeling of the place, moviegoers take more care. It’s a result of what the owner described as “bringing more of a hospitality approach to the cinema experience.”
Soundproofing was a big deal on this project. “One of the most important aspects was to get sound isolation, so you don’t get bleed from the adjacent auditoriums, not to mention from the restaurant operating above four of the cinemas,” he said. “We learned from all the best practices in the industry and took it a step further.” Payne said the theaters have double walls with air spaces — “the amount of drywall we used was enormous” — and all the walls are on acoustic mats, so they’re suspended from the floor.
This was one of the challenges faced by the design and construction team, which had no multiplex theaters of similar design elsewhere in the country for comparison. Domiteaux + Baggett, mostly a residential architecture firm, started working with Banowsky doing remodels of cinemas in North Carolina. This is only the firm’s fourth theater project.
Talking about design considerations, Banowsky said the architects “got intimately acquainted with the guidelines in the Railyard. Roni [Koltuniak] is an artist. She comes to these places and just spends time, and she has hired local people to do most of the work.” The Austin-based interior designer said, “I’d never spent any time in Santa Fe, because I thought it was sort of a caricature of itself — not to be mean — but then Bill brought me on, and I went out and got real excited. I went to the railyards in Belen, Albuquerque, and Lamy, as well as Santa Fe, and immersed myself in the culture and found out about foamers.
“I come from a set-design background. Before I was doing interiors, I did sets, creating spaces to fit characters, and that’s how I approach a project: Who is this client? What is this building?”
Koltuniak began working in the home-design sphere in 1992, opening a design studio named MILDRED and doing interiors in Hollywood for celebrities, including Madonna and other high-end clients. “Then, when I got more involved in the commercial work, it was more about the space and the concept given to me by the owner — in this case, Bill — and I wanted to do a sort of minimalist version of what I thought was a palette or tone of Santa Fe without going into a Pueblo vernacular. I also wanted an austerity, so I was playing with how to speak to the landscape and environment of Santa Fe, and, specifically, the Railyard, and, more specifically, the architectural space.”
She is now spending time in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Banowsky is developing the third — and probably the last — Violet Crown theater. “Charlottesville is the home of Thomas Jefferson, and the building we’re working with is midcentury modern, a real nice antidote to the antebellum red-brick-and-arches style you see everywhere there, so we’re doing a sleek, gray-brick facade.”
The box office, lobby, and restaurant spaces in the new Santa Fe multiplex are earthy and “upscale industrial” with their tile and brick and that big steel boxcar sculpture. The bar underneath that feature boasts 30 taps for beer, as well as wine and apple cider. Second Street Brewery’s Railyard location is right across the plaza. Isn’t that a problem, competitively? “No,” Banowsky said. “They look at it as a rising-tide phenomenon, and we would definitely have some of their beers on tap.”
The idea is that Violet Crown will bring more people to the Railyard, an advantage for all the businesses there. And theater customers get four hours of free parking in the adjacent railyard parking garage. That may be the real key to enlivening the district. ◀