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The Surprise Home Theater

Transforming a playroom in a New York City apartment to a fully functioning home theater in one clandestine month — don’t tell the family!

Surprise Home Theater

Los Angeles interior designer Megan Hersch’s mission didn’t come from an exploding tape recorder, but that didn’t make it sound any less impossible: Her client wanted a home theater installed in his family’s NYC apartment over the course of one single month — while the family was on vacation — so he could surprise his wife with it as a 40th birthday gift when they returned home.

The reasons to decline this job were many — the long-distance aspect, the restrictive NYC apartment construction times, the uncompromising schedule — but the reason to accept was obvious; this was a longtime client of Hersch and her company, Studio MG Interiors, and it was never going to happen without her knowledge of the family’s needs and likes.

Other Interesting Installs: Smart Above and Golf Below

The Planning
The job began about a year before construction was to take place. “In the beginning, we just talked about general aesthetic,” says Megan Hersch. “I would say there was six months of planning, and then we started to look at fabrics and rugs and all that, because it had to be ordered very well in advance to make sure that it wasn’t going to be late. There was no way you could run over — they were coming back from their trip and it had to be done.”

Hersch wanted the integrator involved as early as possible, which was especially easy for her seeing as she lives with one — her husband, Justin Hersch, who owns Crestline Automation, also in Los Angeles.

The duo went out to visit the site a few months before the installation, while the wife was away on a business trip, to meet with the contractor.

“The client had to get approval from the building to do the theater,” says Justin. “And the HOA [Home Owners Association] brought in an acoustical consultant who was throwing all these wrenches in our plans and required us to hire an acoustical engineer. It was a nightmare — the back and forth was ridiculous.

“The big thing that the building was concerned about was sound leaking out into the other rooms and units, so our main concern was sound isolation. We built a room within the room and then insulated the space in between the walls to keep the sound energy from transferring out. That adds cost and time, but that’s what we had to do because we just couldn’t build the theater and then have the neighbors hear it.

“It was all very coordinated, and it took time. We worked months in advance to get these approvals because the client had to wait until his wife was out of town for us to come back and slip in. It was a lot of work in the background to make it happen, but we managed to get it all done.”

Demo began even before the family’s car arrived at the airport.

Surprise Home Theater
The theater’s back row seats are made up of CinemaTech LeGrande incliners — including individual chairs and loveseats with a removable armrest.

The Building
The new theater was going into a room that was a playroom; in fact, part of the genesis of project was the client telling his kids that if they didn’t clean up their toys, he was going to convert the room into the home theater that his wife always wanted. As such, the room itself presented its own share of challenges.

“It wasn’t a dedicated theater with four walls that were sealed off,” says Justin. “We had glass on one side and a skylight to deal with. Again, it was more about keeping the sound from leaking out to all the other units and keeping it in the room.”

And it wasn’t just the theater sounds that had to be contained — it was also the construction noises. Fortunately, luck was with the team on this front, as the apartment below was undergoing some construction as well, and the unit to the right of them was for sale and vacant at the time. Still, they couldn’t start before 8:00 AM and had to be wrapped up by 3:00 PM.

“It was a lot of work, but the contractor was excellent and he worked as much as he could,” says Justin. The loud part of the construction lasted about a week, which is not very long, but still a quarter of the time this project had to be completed.”

The “before” shot of the playroom before the quick change into a home theater.
The room has a skylight that is covered by an automated Somfy tension shade. A Sony 4K projector was chosen so they could still see the screen even if the shade was opened.

The space was not able to contain a Dolby Atmos theater, so Crestline built a 7.2 system that is controlled through Crestron automation. Other gear in the room includes Sonance Visual Performance LCR and Surround speakers, a color-changing backlit 140-inch Zero Edge Pro screen by Screen Innovations, a Sony AV receiver, and a Sony 4K projector.

“We had a skylight in the room,” says Justin, “and even though we were putting an automated Somfy tension shade on it, we needed to make sure that the projector was strong enough so if they wanted to leave the skylight open, they could still watch a video during the day with a sharp and bright picture.”

For sources, Crestline focused on streaming media: AppleTV for movies and Roku because it offers direct selection of an app such as Netflix or Amazon Prime. “On both the Crestron remote and touchpanel, there is a ‘Netflix’ button,” says Justin. “When pressed, it turns on the projector, closes the drapes, lowers the lights, selects Roku as the video input, and launches the Netflix app. The client loves the simplicity and ease of access to their favorite programming. We also have buttons for Hulu and Amazon Prime, and there is a DirecTV and Blu-ray player, but it’s the streaming devices that are used most frequently.”

Thick curtains cover the glass doorway into the theater and can also be moved as part of the Crestron automation system. As of this time, the theater is the only room in the house with an automation system.

The curtains cover a glass door and wall that leads to the rest of the apartment, while the front of the theater has room for the kids to play on the floor while watching movies.

For seating, the client did not want many rows of seats, which was good because there was a height restriction. He wanted an open space in the front in case his kids wanted friends over to watch a movie while they sat on the floor. As a result, the room has two rows, with the back row raised.

The back row is where most of the movie watching would be done, so Justin made sure the incliners were located in the room’s sweet spot. The back row chairs are CinemaTech LeGrande incliners, which feature motorized headrests and footrests. “The client came to one of our theaters in L.A. that featured CinemaTech seating and was so enamored with them that he flew to Florida to visit their showroom to see the entire seating line before deciding on the LeGrande incliners,” says Justin.

“He really wanted a very traditional, comfortable theater feel, and that’s why he picked them,” adds Megan. “He loved the way that they felt. There’s a double seat with an armrest that is removable if they want the option of being able to sit together without an arm between them. So there are a couple of individual seats and then there’s one that’s a loveseat.”

The chairs were last-minute arrivals, just making into the room a day before the reveal. But at least they made it…

The front row features a couch that caused more than a few concerns. “The client wanted a sofa that was a little bit different, so I had it custom made in L.A., and when it got to New York, we found out it couldn’t get it up to the apartment — it would not fit in the elevators and stairwells,” says Megan. “It would have to come in through the window. I had the option of getting a guy without a permit with a crane on a Friday before Labor Day, but we didn’t want to take the chance. The client and I decided that we got it this far — she’ll be so surprised. And then we brought the couch in a couple of weeks after they returned from vacation. That was like the icing on the cake.”

Justin set up a Nest camera in the room at the start of construction so the client could monitor what was going on while he was out of town. “He was able to see and make sure the contractor was showing up, because it was a big concern — there was no leeway, no extra time. He could jump in and see what was happening and talk to us, which was helpful to him.”

The view inside the room from the hallway.

The Reveal
The Hersches were not on-site for the big reveal, but fortunately the Nest camera was still active, and the clients shared the recording of the event. Justin describes what happened: “As they came down the hallway, his wife saw a new keypad on the wall, and one of the buttons was engraved with the word ‘Movie.’ The wife walked up and she’s like, ‘What’s going on?’ because she also noticed the opening that used to go into the playroom was now all glass and the inside was covered by a curtain.

“So she pushes the ‘Movie’ button and the curtains slowly start to open, the projector turns on, the lights came on dimmed, and a clip of her favorite movie starts playing. She was in shock. She had no idea what she was walking into. She was just blown away by it.”

The kids were also pretty excited, until the client’s daughter remembered the cost of having the theater — the loss of her toys — and began crying until she was taken next door into the new room were all her toys were waiting for her.

When all was said and done, and after the birthday girl had a chance to scrutinize the room, was there anything she wanted changed? “The client based his decisions on what his wife and I had done before in the house, so it really worked well,” says Megan. “She really trusts me, so I think that was helpful.

“And he’s a wonderful man — he really thought of her even down to the pillows. Every decision was about what she would like and what she would enjoy. Not to say that he doesn’t enjoy the room — he has told me it is their favorite place in the house. So, yes, she was completely surprised and so appreciative and amazed. And he won a lot of brownie points.”