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Backstage Pass

Surrounded by buildings, with an alley as its only direct access, the theater and TV center at Boston's Emerson College is the ultimate example of urban infill.

June 01, 2004 |

Evenings along busy Tremont Street in Boston's thriving Theater District, motorists and pedestrians passing by the backstage service entryway known as Allen's Alley are treated — if at times only fleetingly — to one of the most entertaining shows being staged in the district, and it doesn't cost a dime. At the end of the alley, a computer-choreographed collage of colored light floods the smoke vestibule in the 11-story glass stairwell of the new Tufte Performance and Production Center.

Not many performance facilities have their marquee tucked away in an alley. But the Tufte Center, completed last September to house Emerson College's theater and television disciplines, is no typical performance facility. The spellbinding LED "color blast" lightshow, developed by locally based lighting designer Color Kinetics, is but one of many lively elements to this vibrant yet secluded building.

It took an imaginative mind and a leap of faith to envision that such a facility could one day occupy the exceedingly tight site that it does. Buried in the middle of a block in the heart of what not long ago was known as Boston's Combat Zone, the 80,000-sf building is shoehorned into a 7,000-sf footprint, abutting buildings on three sides and separated from buildings on the fourth side by the 18-foot-wide, 250-foot-long Allen's Alley, which is its only direct access.

But a new building is exactly what Rob Silverman, Emerson's VP for administration and finance, had in mind the day in 1996 when he brought representatives from Boston-based Elkus/Manfredi Architects to the gritty site, which contained a few dumpsters and was being used as an illegal parking lot. The State Transportation Building abuts the site (which is owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) on the south and west sides. The beaux arts Cutler Majestic Theatre, built in 1903 and purchased by Emerson in 1983, was using the east side of the lot to park dressing room trailers.

This "Mary Poppins world of rooftops and alleyways" made the project "the ultimate infill site," according to Elkus/Manfredi principal Howard Elkus, FAIA. With "no address and no exterior exposure," there seemed to be "no conceivable use for the site," he says. "It was a most adverse environment for any traditional use."

Dreaming big, Emerson's Silverman got permission from the state legislature to build a performance facility on the site. "Somehow, Rob Silverman was able to visualize a building in this tiny tucked-away odd plot of land," says David Rosen, the college's associate VP of public affairs.

Where's the front door?

But the site still had no access other than the service alley. Intrigued by the project, yet unsure of its constructability, the Elkus/Manfredi design team pursued a tunnel scenario involving another building owned by Emerson at the mouth of Allen's Alley across from the Majestic. But the scenario seemed "unlikely," says Silverman.

The missing piece was added in late 1998 with Emerson's purchase of the Walker Building, which abuts the Tufte site at the end of Allen's Alley, where the colorfully lit stairwell now rises. Acquiring the Walker Building, which now houses the college's broadcast journalism department, was "the key to making the project work," says Silverman. "We were able to figure out a way to provide pedestrian access to the Tufte through the Walker Building, which has much more attractive access than would have been possible if we were restricted to Allen's Alley."


Beaming from an alleyway in the heart of Boston’s Theater District, a zipper of light in the stairwell of the Tufte Performance and Production Center puts on a show for passing pedestrians and motorists.

Ironically, the Walker Building's main access is via another alleyway, the brick-paved Boylston Place, which extends from Boylston Street and the Boston Common. "When you arrive at the Tufte through the Boylston Place entrance, you do so without ever having seen the building," says Elkus/Manfredi VP Robert Koup, AIA.

To make the $31.5 million project happen, Emerson turned to mostly local companies, many of which were already working on the restoration of the Majestic Theatre next door. In addition to Elkus/Manfredi, locally based Lee Kennedy Co. was in enlisted as the project's construction manager and general contractor, with LeMessurier Consultants as structural engineer and Cosentini Associates as the mechanical/electrical consultant. The only newcomer to the Building Team was New York-based theater consultant Auerbach Pollock Friedlander.

Setting the stageThe exceedingly tight site demanded an intense and lengthy planning and preconstruction phase to work out complicated logistics and secure permitting, which involved both the city and the state, because the property was state land and abutted the State Transportation Building.

"The amount of planning and coordination was well above average," says Silverman. "It's definitely not a cookie-cutter building. There's nothing off the shelf about Tufte. Nothing."

Lee Kennedy was brought in early during the preconstruction phase to address pricing issues, conduct extensive surveys of the site and neighboring buildings, establish the building footprint, and confirm elevations. One of the many surprises they uncovered was that the old granite foundation of the Walker Building protruded farther than expected, which caused some revision of foundation schemes, says Chris Pennie, Lee Kennedy's general superintendent. They also unearthed a hidden pedestrian tunnel, part of the old subway system, beneath Allen's Alley. As a result, the alley had to be reconstructed because the tunnel was undermining its stability.

Lee Kennedy's input was "critical from the outset," says Koup. The building's lightweight honeycomb core metal panel exterior skin was selected as much for its cost and construction benefits as for its fresh, contemporary aesthetic, which serves as a neutral companion piece for the surrounding buildings. With no staging area available on or around the site, masonry was found to be cost prohibitive. Weighing only a pound per square foot, the metal panels could be erected using a swing-staging technique or by bringing them up through the building.

Ordinarily, construction of an 11-story building would not require a tower crane with a 230-foot boom radius, but the project's tight fit made it necessary to erect such a tower crane to pick steel and conduct concrete bucket pours. To keep the alley open to serve the surrounding buildings, the crane had to be erected within the building footprint, in the space eventually occupied by the stairwell. Even setting up the tower crane proved a challenge. LeMessurier designed a thicker than usual concrete mat to support the crane. To erect the crane, two service cranes were required, but only one fit into the alley.

With no staging or lay-down area available, the delivery of materials and the work of trades had to be meticulously scheduled to avoid logjams. Materials were taken directly off delivery trucks and placed; trades were scheduled so that their work would not conflict with others. To compensate for the lack of lay-down area, some material, such as the exterior metal panels was laid down inside the building footprint, occupying precious floor space. "That prevented us from building the inside until most of the skin was completed," says Pennie.

The nearly column-free structural design of the building was driven by two factors: the requirement that the building's ground-floor service dock accommodate the State Transportation Building, and the building's program, which includes two performing arts theaters and two TV studios. With such a small footprint, the service dock occupies almost all of the building's ground floor. "The only two interior columns on the entire project go all the way up through the building without ever having to be transferred, even though they pass through seven or eight completely different functional spaces," says LeMessurier project engineer, Brian Eaton.

The tight site and soil conditions necessitated the creation of deep-drilled concrete shafts offset from the property line to support the building. Crews drilled through 100 feet of thick, muddy Boston blue clay before reaching the glacial till, says Eaton. A system of heavy concrete transfer beams in the ground dissipates the loads from the perimeter columns inward into the six-foot-diameter shafts. Next door, the Majestic, with its shallower brick footings, was underpinned to secure its foundation.

Ironically, being boxed in on three sides made it easier to devise a diagonal bracing system to resist hurricane force winds and meet seismic requirements, with the bracing installed on the outside walls on the building's three enclosed sides. Although Boston is a marginal seismic zone, a 10-inch gap was required to separate the building from the adjacent buildings. The bracing was required to prevent any sway that might move the building over the property line.

To conserve ceiling space, penetrations were cut into the structural steel, but Koup says the use of large-diameter HVAC ducts to accommodate slow-moving air for sound reduction around the theaters and television studios and the space required to run the miles of wire and cable in the building still severely cramped the space.

The Tufte Center is the first new building Emerson College has constructed in its 124-year history. For the past 10 years, the well-respected performing arts and broadcast institution has been relocating its campus from historic brownstones in upscale Back Bay, to buildings that it began purchasing in the Theater District in the early 1990s, when prices were low.

Elkus/Manfredi's Koup says three months were spent at the outset conducting feasibility studies and determining what elements could logically fit into the building program, given its small footprint, a height restriction of 155 feet, and a floor-area ratio of 10.

The building contains two performing arts theaters, two television studios, faculty offices, digital media laboratories, dressing rooms for the theaters, and dressing rooms and support facilities for the Majestic. (An art gallery was added later.) Flexible lighting, sound, set and costume design, and makeup studio facilities double as support spaces for performance and classroom activities.


From Boylston Place, students enter the Tufte Center through the Walker Building.

To maximize the limited amount of daylight and views afforded by Allen's Alley, the building was configured with the "black box" theater and television spaces located on the inner portion of the building against the walls that border the State Transportation Building. Faculty offices and functions that support the black box spaces, such as lobbies, which benefit from the daylight and views, were located on the outer portion of the building along the alley.

Elkus/Manfredi wanted to give the Tufte Center the same lively, creative environment found in the theater department's previous brownstone facilities. "Every space in the building is considered a performance space," says Koup. Wherever possible, double-height spaces were created to form "balcony overlooks," which can be used for pre- or post-show performances, or to extend performances out from the theaters and into other parts of the building. Balconies are provided in the main entrance and theater lobbies.

The "industrial chic" aesthetic of the theater spaces is carried through the building, with theater lighting hanging from rigging in dark open ceilings. Walls are white and sparsely decorated. Inspired by the color bar in a television test pattern, bold blue, red, and green spot color accents are illuminated over doorways, on walls and HVAC ducts, and elsewhere throughout the irregularly shaped building.

Two cantilevered curtain wall elements supported by 5x5-inch steel tubes give the exterior added character and provide better sightlines and views. Along the second-floor theater lobby, a downward sloping glass curtain wall cantilevers over the entrance to the service dock and Allen's Alley, angling outward slightly more at the end facing the alley's entrance. Instead of looking directly across the alley at the fire escape (à la "West Side Story") and blank end wall of the Colonial Theater, the angle of the curtain wall gives theatergoers a better view of the stairwell light show at the end of the alley. Pulling the curtain wall out at that angle also provides onlookers from the street a view into the lobby.

Air rights had to be secured to allow the curtain wall on the top three floors of the Tufte Center to cantilever over the Walker Building where the two buildings connect. Referred to by the Building Team as the "tree house," the three-story curtain wall encloses three seminar rooms and offers breathtaking views from Emerson's new home in the Theater District north over Boston Common and the Charles River.

Just across the Common, Emerson's former brownstone campus in the Back Bay is visible, a few blocks and more than a century in the distance.

Construction Costs

General requirements $6,959,300
Sitework 3,234,400
Concrete 605,800
Masonry 320,900
Metals 3,139,200
Wood/plastic 329,100
Thermal/moisture 1,173,200
Doors/windows 1,089,900
Finishes 3,215,800
Specialties 155,200
Equipment 1,090,400
Furnishings 88,000
Elevators 1,260,300
M/P/FP 4,750,000
Electrical 4,088,500
Total $31,500,000

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