The Signature Finds Its Center: After a Ground Zero Location Fell Through, Signature Theatre Landed on 42nd Street

New Frank Gehry-designed space could be a cultural anchor for the West Side

Rendering of Signature Center entrance on West 42nd Street by Daniel Black. (Signature Center)

Jim Houghton’s secret lair is in the back of a parking garage on 42nd Street, just east of 10th Avenue. There, in a warmly lit room behind an anonymous steel door, the Signature Theatre Company’s founder exhibits his models. His artful miniatures depict a thriving theater center, featuring four stages, a café, a bookstore and, most important, hundreds of tiny metal theatergoers. In Mr. Houghton’s models, there is not an empty seat in the house.

Across 42nd Street, those models have nearly been brought to life. The 70,000-square-foot Signature Theatre Center opens on Jan. 31, a bid for citywide prominence from a company that has spent two decades making a name for itself as a friend of the living playwright. In the mid ’90s the Signature was homeless, surviving in space rented from the Public Theater. Now its staff is preparing to occupy what they call the first new theater complex Manhattan has seen since the opening of Lincoln Center. If Mr. Houghton can fill his Frank Gehry-designed palace as easily as he has his models, this center could become the Public Theater of a revived West Side.

“It’s a whole city block!” he exclaimed last week while giving a tour of the site. With his smooth speech and swept back, graying hair, Mr. Houghton has the elegance of a James Bond villain. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a long-time collaborator who is directing one of the first plays of the center’s inaugural season, called Mr. Houghton “that kind of warrior who’s going to make a stand for something besides the dollar.” Some people are changed by theater ownership, he said, but success has not spoiled Jim Houghton. “If Jim’s an asshole,” said Mr. Santiago-Hudson, “it would permeate the entire company. But because Jim’s so good, it’s infectious.”

“And now,” he concluded, “he’s got an empire.”

The Signature Theatre’s mission began percolating inside Mr. Houghton’s august head in the late ’80s, after years of what he called “off-center experiences” with big-headed actors, directors and artistic directors who let their egos hijack a production. It was while appearing in a play written and directed by Romulus Linney that “suddenly all the pieces fell into place.”

“With Romulus it was crystal clear why we were there,” said Mr. Houghton. “We were there to serve the play, and him as the playwright. A lot of the BS that got caught up in the process went away.” In honor of Mr. Linney, who died in January, one of the new center’s three main theaters will bear his name.

When he founded the Signature in 1991, Mr. Houghton used it to help writers escape “an abusive setting where they couldn’t really engage in their own work.” He found fast success by giving year-long residencies to playwrights like Edward Albee, whose renown had turned him into a museum piece. When the Signature was founded, Mr. Albee had not had a new play produced in a decade. The Signature quickly staged four of his works, some old and some new.

This was, Mr. Houghton said, “something nobody else in the world was doing.” The company grew quickly, moving into its first permanent home—a single-theater space down the street from the new Gehry-designed digs—in 1997. It outgrew that space almost immediately, reaching a threshold familiar to most midsize theaters, where growth slowed and costs kept rising. “There’s no flexibility in the model,” said Mr. Houghton. “You kind of grow or die.”

It helps to have friends in the mayor’s office. Of the project’s $66 million, $27.5 million has been provided by the city, the fruit of a relationship that goes back to 2004, when the Signature was selected as one of the four tenants for the planned Performing Arts Center at Ground Zero. When that project sputtered, City Hall scoured Manhattan for an alternate location for a company that cultural affairs commissioner Kate D. Levin described as “very nimble in terms of understanding the business of their art.”

“It’s exciting,” she said, “when a relatively young organization has proven itself to have such a powerful idea about how to support artists and find audiences.”

In 2006 the city razed a patch of theater row to prepare western 42nd Street for the eventual arrival of the 7 train. To make up for destroying a pair of Off-Broadway houses, the spot was tagged with a theater bonus, requiring any developer to provide space for the performing arts. In 2007, when Signature was trying to escape the Ground Zero mire, Related Companies was seeking a tenant for the second floor of a glass box condo called MiMA. Connecting the two was, in Ms. Levin’s words, “such an obvious choice.”

The Signature Finds Its Center: After a Ground Zero Location Fell Through, Signature Theatre Landed on 42nd Street