Like Minds Make Beautiful Music

Harmonious teamwork, melodious management combine to transform a theater expansion into an enlightening experience for the whole community
August 11, 2010

Symphonic simpatico. That's one apt way to describe the artistic bond that has formed between the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts in Hartford, Conn., and the motivated building team that last fall delivered its stylish 90,000-sq.-ft. addition, home of the new 907-seat Maxwell N. and Ruth R. Belding Theater.

The versatile space opened to rave reviews in November, thrilling both patrons and creators. Gushed The Hartford Courant, "The new Belding Theater has transformed what was once a single magnificent building into a stunning performance arts campus."

Our jurors reached the same conclusion this spring when they voted enthusiastically to make the Belding Theater our 2002 Grand Award winner for commercial construction in our annual Building Team Project of the Year competition. Jurors saw that behind the well-received artistic effort lay a complex obstacle course of funding, permitting, accommodating and connecting, both spiritually and physically, the new facility to its 72-year-old predecessor and the urban environment that surrounds them.

"We put this thing together and what came out of it was more than a building," said Ronald Compton to the local press last fall. Former Bushnell board president, Compton had launched the five-year, $45 million fundraising drive in 1998 that made the $34 million Belding project possible. By the end of last year, the drive had already raised $43 million.

That public-private support, which includes a $10 million grant from the State of Connecticut and $2.5 million in federal funds, is indicative of the kind of passion and commitment that the project engendered among nearly all who touched it. "From the outset, everyone said 'This is special; let's do what it takes to get it done," recalls Shawn Rosenberger, project manager in the Milford, Conn., office of construction manager Turner Construction Co., the venerable New York City contractor now based in Dallas.

"There was no 'my way or the highway' mentality on this job," adds Gillian Kaeyer, Turner's project engineer. Kaeyer's expertise filled a key niche on the Belding work because she had also worked on the recent high-profile renovation of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

"That was a huge advantage for us," adds Bruce Herrmann, project architect for lead designer Wilson Butler Lodge Inc. (WBL), Boston. Drawing on its arts experience, Turner could look ahead, anticipate specific needs and then budget accordingly, he explains.

But the Belding Theater — named for local patrons who donated $4 million to the effort — also presented new and unique challenges. So the owner took pains to set just the right tone by assembling just the right team. "Turner was uniquely qualified for this job," says Lynn Robinson, senior director of operations for the Bushnell. "They are professional and work effectively, fairly and positively with the entire team."

Which is exactly what the owner wanted. "They told us that they had picked people who seemed like them, so we assume that is what they did with us, too," says Turner's Rosenberger. "Even for my job, they interviewed three of us before picking me," he notes.

On the same song sheet

Similar care was taken in putting WBL across the table from Turner. At the end of 1997, the owner invited 25 design firms to compete for the work. Less than 20 responded before Bushnell narrowed the field to 10. Then, it sliced the field in half and requested written proposals. In the end, Bushnell chose WBL on the merits of its design and without specifics on price.

"As a firm, we were only a year old, so this was really our first major project," recalls WBL Director John Lodge. "Of course, theaters are a particular niche of ours and individually, we did have plenty of portfolio pieces from other work."

Like Turner, the architect fit the profile that the owner was looking for and appeared to be a good fit all the way around. "Everything really fell nicely into place," says Tod Kallenbach, senior director of external realtions for the Bushnell. "We're exceedingly happy with the way it's all turned out; we feel really close to our team."

So close, in fact, that the parties already have reunited to do additional modernization work on the existing 2,800-seat Mortensen Hall, which stayed in operation throughout the adjacent construction. Belding's sparkling arrival last Thanksgiving, however, only underscored the old hall's overdue need for an earnest upgrade.

As it was, melding the two buildings was a particular challenge for the building team.

"It's not intuitive where the two buildings connect," says Kaeyer, noting that the site precluded the team from aligning the floors in each hall. So, in addition to numerous ramps and stairs, "we also have an elevator that can stop 10 times between the five floors," she adds.

Another significant hurdle presented itself outside the building in the form of a 70-year-old, 80-ft.-tall pin oak tree that sits on the site's south side. The owner made it clear that, if at all possible, the building team was not to harm the tree.

"So to protect it, we set up our construction trailers all around it, within 5 feet of the tree and 15 feet of the work," notes Kaeyer. Turner also snaked water lines underneath the trailers to make sure the tree had all it could drink.

Compromises, surprises inside

At one point early in the project, it became apparent that a large secondary performance space that the owner had requested above the Belding Hall was going to push the work significantly over budget. WBL swallowed hard before giving the owner the bad news.

"It's always better to deal with the bad news first," says Herrmann, who says the move saved $10 million. "That really helps build the trust."

It also can spur invention. The owner had primarily wanted the additional space for receptions and other meeting functions, so the team searched for a substitute until they found one. Eliminating the secondary space actually allowed the ceiling to be raised in an area between the two theaters, creating a "Great Hall." The grand space has since been booked for wedding receptions and other elegant affairs.

Since November, a small cafe within the Great Hall also has emerged as a popular local lunch spot, meeting place and thriving revenue source for the owner. So much so, in fact, that the Bushnell — which had earlier been forced to eliminate a full-fledged restaurant from its original plans — now wants to add a commercial kitchen and more seating space to expand the cafe into a true dining destination.

"It's been a huge success," says Lodge.

Inside the theater, the team was bent on making the Belding experience as special as it could be for both visitors and performers. Already, it has successfully lured a number of smaller shows to its stage and enabled the larger Mortensen space to bring in more touring shows from Broadway. Together, the two spaces will play host to 450 events in 2002. Last year, Mortensen alone was only able to handle 243.

One large contributing factor to that growth and Belding's quick acceptance in the arts community was the top-notch players that Turner and WBL were able to assemble.

Acoustics, of course, were essential. Bushnell was fortunate to have one of the best in the business just down the road. Norwalk, Conn.-based Jaffe Holden Acoustics Inc. already was a veteran of big-name renovations at facilities like Radio City Music Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The firm's Russell Cooper jumped into the Belding project and ensured the use of proper materials, appropriately spaced and warmly displayed.

On the ceiling, the team placed another key piece, a cosmic mural by Boston artist Jim Piatt that echoes the "sun, moon and stars" theme on Mortensen's ceiling. It is yet another thread that ties the two halls even closer together.

Construction Costs

Demolition $370,000
Excavation/foundation 5,850,000
Structure 1,970,000
Roofing 525,000
Exterior wall 6,150,000
Interior work 6,150,000
Special equipment 2,160,000
Elevators 480,000
Plumbing 700,000
Fire protection 385,000
HVAC 2,340,000
Electrical 2,580,000
Other 4,400,000
TOTAL $34,060,000