Austrian glass makes up the apples, oranges and pears dangling from the chandelier. (c) Jim Norrena 2016
Article

The Chandelier's Grand Return

This summer, the Curran's nearly 100-year-old chandelier took a few months off to enjoy a little rest, relaxation and refurbishment in the city of its design and manufacturing. Join the Phoenix Day crew as they restore the chandelier to all its former glory.

I am hunting for a skeleton.

It’s 2:48PM on a Thursday afternoon in the heart of San Francisco’s theater district. It is uncommonly warm for the foggy city but you wouldn’t guess it from where I’m standing in the Curran. The dust in the air glows under the light from my cellphone, which is clamped between my teeth to free my hands for climbing over scaffolding. No lights. No power. And none of the 1600 seats that usually occupy the space. It’s eerie. But even with little light to guide me, it doesn’t take long to find my skeleton. She’s not where she’s supposed to be, dangling silent above the mezzanine, but she is still unmistakable. She’s tall and slender without her hundreds of pounds of crystal and brass, regal even in her nakedness.

There’s something theatrical about the juxtaposition of scaffolding and intricate metal design, of crystal fruit and warped nails.

As part of the Curran’s on-going renovation, the nearly 100-year-old chandelier was dismantled back in June by a construction crew from Phoenix Day, a San Francisco based lighting company. To hear Tony Brenta, principal at Phoenix Day, explain it, taking her apart was much, much easier than putting her back together. Tony and his team let me sit and watch for the week and a half it took them to get it done.

Phoenix Day Principal Tony Brenta checks out his handiwork.

  Phoenix Day Principal Tony Brenta checks out his handiwork.

I go back to check on the chandelier the next day and catch the construction crew just before lunch. There are four today, including leader Tony, his son-in-law, Landon Gellert, and construction worker Mark Wall. Today, they are prepping the chandelier’s base and aligning the braces that will support each of her 16 arms.

“It’s a lot of moving pieces,” Mark says, telling me he got his start working on cars with his grandfather when he was a kid. “Reminds me of that,” he says, pointing a thumb at the chandelier’s many pieces. “You know you did a good job if all you end up with is a can of bolts.”

The Curran’s chandelier has only a handful of bolts, but each one is responsible for supporting one of her arms, the largest of which weigh over 100 pounds. This, Tony explains, is one of the more tedious parts of the chandelier’s reconstruction. Every arm that is attached needs to be in perfect alignment with the body of the chandelier, or the bolts meant to hold the whole thing together won’t screw in. I watch Landon support one of the larger arms against his leg for almost fifteen minutes while Tony searches with his finger for a bolt hole the size of your pinky nail.

On the higher level of scaffolding, Mark is shouting down directions: “Okay, rotate it counterclockwise - to your left - by about half an inch. No, that’s too much!”

At the end of that first long day, the gentle glow of the chandelier’s molded candles belies the strenuous effort I’ve witnessed.

In order to correctly reconstruct the nearly 100-year-old chandelier, the Phoenix Day crew used a complicated system of tagging and labeling.

  In order to correctly reconstruct the nearly 100-year-old chandelier, the Phoenix Day crew used a complicated system of tagging and labeling.

The next time I go to visit her, the chandelier is braced with two large arms and drips not with sculpted glass and fruit and brass flowers, but with dangling wires and dozens of hanging tags and labels, each marked with a series of numbers and letters, which is how the Phoenix Day team knows which pieces where and in what order.

“It’s definitely one of the more difficult constructions projects I’ve done,” Landon tells me. “The whole thing can spin around on you. There are so many pieces. Everything is sharp and fragile. It’s tricky.”

Though the chandelier is just one of many renovation projects going on in the theater, she is definitely taking center stage. There’s something theatrical about the juxtaposition of scaffolding and intricate metal design, of crystal fruit and warped nails. A San Francisco native, the chandelier is one of the last pieces of original lighting left in the theater.

I watch mostly in silence today, the team doing a slow dance with the chandelier in the middle of the theater as they move around her, and she begins to pirouette. It’s only been a few days, but her lighting feels much closer. As I leave, the team wishes me an exhausted goodbye.

“Maybe tomorrow you can give us a hand?” Tony suggests.

It feels like an invitation to dance.