Beginning in 1996, cable television billionaire and philanthropist Alan Gerry purchased the original Woodstock festival field and 1,700 surrounding acres in Sullivan County, N.Y., with the intent to turn economically depressed Sullivan County into a tourist destination. The site provided a perfect backdrop to create Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a multi-venue performing arts complex that can accommodate 16,800 fans at the main outdoor concert pavilion. The complex also includes a museum and event gallery dedicated to 1960s in general and the world-famous 1969 festival in particular.
The $70 million project, launched by the Gerry Foundation in 2004, has employed over 650 New York State laborers and artisans in every trade and skill, many from the local area. Designed by Westlake Reed Leskosky of Cleveland, the Building Team had to overcome a sometimes frustrating two-year design and construction process that was rife with historic preservation concerns.
“In dealing with an owner that was very hands-on and a site that was considered sacred, pulling together such a complex project was quite an accomplishment,” said John Durbrow, AIA, professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology and a Building Team Awards judge.
Gerry was a most-demanding client. Westlake Reed Leskosky was the third architect hired for the Bethel Woods project. One of those dismissed was museum designer Richard Meier, whom Gerry sacked for turning in a concept that Gerry reportedly thought “looked like a flying saucer.”
The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation determined that the site was “nationally significant” and asked that permanent construction not be placed within sight of the original natural amphitheater where the heavy timber stage of Woodstock was located. The Bethel Woods pavilion is actually situated on a neighboring farm site that Gerry also purchased, almost out of sight of the Woodstock stage area.
“All our new construction was placed either in back bowls or beyond a ridge where it could barely be seen from the original site,” said Paul E. Westlake, Jr., FAIA, managing principal of Westlake Reed Leskosky and lead architectural designer for the project. “In addition to placement, they were concerned with the character of the buildings. They felt that they should reflect the rural aesthetic of the site and landscape.”
The Building Team responded with a subdued design that used glulam timbers for the museum’s roof supports (provided by Unadilla Laminated Products, a local custom wood-truss fabricator), copper, stone site and building walls, and cedar siding.
“We used Western red cedar for the roofing and siding of some of the buildings,” said Mike Dinapoli, project executive for Boston-based general contractor Suffolk Construction. “Many local stone masons worked on the job, and the stone all came from nearby fields and quarries. Their work certainly reflected that it wasn’t just an assembly-line approach.”
After nearly two years of work, just as Bethel Woods was nearing completion, a series of floods hit the area, causing $27 million of damage. Under adverse conditions, the Building Team pressed on. The center opened on time and hosted Woodstock performers Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in its first season.
Bethel Woods has also begun to fulfill its promise as an economic engine and catalyst for tourism in Sullivan County. New development of a green technology park and a state casino are on the horizon for the area.
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts
Submiting firm: Westlake Reed Leskosky (architect)
Owner: Gerry Foundation
Construction manager: Suffolk Construction
Acoustician: Jaffee Holden Acoustics
Landscape consultant: Olin Partnership
Project cost: $70 million (Phase 1)
Size: 127,166 sf in 17 buildings
Construction time: October 2004 to June 2006