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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West Upgrade, Part 1

Apr 9, 2013 11:21 AM, With Bennett Liles

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So describe the Cabaret home theater. That seems to be the focus of HomeTech AV’s part of the project.

It’s being done in stages. So the first stage was the Cabaret, which to be honest, from our standpoint, was the most interesting because it really is what we do as an AV contractor, you know, home cinema. And not just any home cinema, probably one of the first home cinemas in America, and it just so happened to be in Frank Lloyd Wright’s home. He used the Cabaret theater to entertain. They’d have a dinner and either a stage show or dinner and a movie, and he got this idea from the cabarets of Europe, particularly Germany. He loved that feeling, he liked the idea that you would have a group of people over and there would be food and drink and entertainment. So he purpose-built this space to be a theater before, I think, anybody in a private residence had a theater. It was finished in 1951. The most unusual thing about that space is it’s what’s called an irregular hexagon, so it has no 90-degree corners. It’s shaped very similar to a funnel with the smaller point of the funnel being where the screen is and the room gets larger towards the back. What that creates is a hard surface room. This is all rock and concrete. There’s no acoustic panels, there’s no treatments whatsoever. It’s rock and concrete and it’s 95 percent acoustically clean. And part of the other idea that he had was to create the ability, without amplification, for the voices down at the stage to be just as clear at the back of the theater, which is where he would sit, 65 feet from the front. He created a pit that’s 24 inches deep and he suspended a plywood floor over the top of that. That actually creates almost like a piano soundboard. It resonates the sound so you can be standing at the screen and whisper and be heard at the back of the room. That’s one of the things that when you take a tour of Taliesin West you get to experience. They demonstrate that. So for us to be able to come into a room purpose-built as a cinema that old that would be able to reproduce sound that clearly, I’ve never heard anything like it. When we were done and we fired up the sound system for the first time, it was incredible. Instead of having to ramp the volume all the way up to get that full theater experience, we could run it at half the normal level and even at the back of the room it still felt like you were in a full-blown movie theater. [Timestamp: 7:00]

Right and that is a very futuristic-looking place, especially to have been built back in the early fifties. They already had some AV gear in there from that era didn’t they?

Yeah, there was an original 16mm projector that is circa 1951. It was imported from Italy, and that was used up until probably the late 60’s. You know they just stopped using it, mostly because I think it was harder and harder to get content. His granddaughter was famous actor Anne Baxter, so many of the movies that were shown in there were her movies, and they’d have a family night. Even after he was gone, the cinema would be used by the family for events to show these pictures. So there’s been a history there. The projector is still there. There’s multiple canisters of film still in the projection room and it’s basically untouched. It looks the way it did in the 50’s until we showed up and installed a modern projector. [Timestamp: 7:53]

Yeah, I’ll bet that thing was a monster when it was run. It was probably loud and hot and just trying to keep it up and running probably required an inhouse expert or two, but within inches of that I think you now have installed a Digital Projection E-Vision projector?

Yep, we did the E-Vision. It’s a 6,000-lumen projector, which we needed something that would have enough light output to shoot that image 65ft., and they wanted to be able to use this thing during the daytime. The room does not have 100 percent light control. There’s the walkway that you come in that you’re still getting probably a 20 percent light leak through even when they close up the wooden panels. We were also limited on size. We didn’t have a lot of space to fit that in because the original projector is actually bolted to the floor on a concrete foundation, so there was no moving out of the way and making room for a projector. We weren’t able to cut a new hole in the projection room wall to shoot through. We couldn’t change anything. So he had to find the highest brightness projector we could get with the smallest chassis, and literally the DP projector fit in there with a half an inch of room to spare. [Timestamp: 9:00]

Yeah, for 6,000 lumens the Digital Projection E-Vision is a pretty tiny unit.

Yep, yep.

And what else did you put in there? What kind of Elan equipment did you put in there?

The overall control of the room is done with an Elan g! home controller. We used the AC-4, which is the smallest one. It’s made for, you know, this type of situation. We just have a small, single room to control. But the beauty of it is as we add the rest of the buildings onto the campus, which will be controlled by Elan g!, we can switch that thing from being a master controller into being extender mode, so it becomes a slave. So it just basically goes on the network and we can attach it to the whole building control later on. So it was a great way to make something expandable and scalable, but give us an immediate effect to control that lighting and the video and audio sources. [Timestamp: 9:52]

And I think you touched on this before, it’s all stone and concrete construction, so I know that had to make it interesting for wiring and getting signals around.

Yeah. We had two issues. The first was there was no way to put any speakers, as you’d standard put speakers in a cinema. We weren’t allowed to put any surround sound speakers because they weren’t original to the room, so hanging a pair of rear-channel speakers was not an option. So what we had to do was we ended up doing a 3-channel with two subwoofer solution and we put those behind the existing location of the screen where we swapped out the screen fabric that was original to 1951 with an acoustically-transparent screen fabric from daylight. Then the speakers themselves are all JBL Synthesis in-wall, and it was a matched set, so we had that part of the work done for us. We knew that they would work together and sound good. And then all the cabling leads out the back of the screen into a small room that is behind the screen that serves as a staging kitchen for when they have the dinner parties there, and we actually installed our equipment into an existing cabinet, an historic cabinet that had been there since the beginning. [Timestamp: 11:02]

OK so it’s out of the way and out of sight because your guys were working around a lot of tours in that place while you were doing this.

Yeah. That was the most challenging part of it, aside from the fact we couldn’t run any wires was the tours are literally back-to-back. We had windows of three to 10 minutes to be out there and to fire up an image and to adjust things until after 5:30. So we wound up working a couple of late nights, but we also wanted to be able to see what this thing looked like during the daytime. There was one day when we had to pull the old screen off and we had to pull the frame down, and as we peeled off the old trapping, it turned out that a good portion of the frame had had termites living in it for probably 40 years and it just crumbled. So the artisan carpenters that are onsite there at Taliesin West that do all the restoration work actually came in and rebuilt that portion of the frame in the exact same way that it was originally with the same type of dado cuts and the same old-school carpentry fabrication that just isn’t done today. [Timestamp: 12:04]

Wow, so what was the overall timeframe on it? How long did you have to get all of this done?

We were there for just shy of a week, including two very long nights.

OK, well that’s not too bad. I mean it’s pretty quick to get all that stuff in. I guess it was a help because of going wireless from the amps behind the screen area to the projector with no cable runs to do.

We did find out though, however, that the glass that was used at the front of the projection wall that the projector is shooting through has such a high lead content in it that it’s just barely on the fringe for the wireless technology to penetrate the glass with the lead in it. So what we might wind up doing is going back to get a more robust signal and use a power line video solution because that room is all on the same sub panel and on the same phase. So that may be another option, too. [Timestamp: 12:58]

All right, well certainly way beyond your average home theater installation and I appreciate it, Jim. Jim Beaumont from HomeTech AV Solutions with us on the SVC Podcast and Taliesin West. In part two, we’ll get into some more detail on the Elan equipment, the audio system and some of the events that are held at Taliesin West. Thanks for being here Jim, to give us a look at it.

Thank you very much. I appreciate it. [Timestamp: 13:21]

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