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In Baltimore, ambitious renovation and expansion projects have the spotlights shining anew on three venerable performing arts venues.

By By Larry Flynn, Senior Editor | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200404 issue of BD+C.

Timing is everything in the theater and performing arts, as well as in building design and construction. In Baltimore, the economic prosperity of the mid- and late-1990s made it possible for three venerable performing arts centers to receive welcome renovations that, for the most part, were long overdue.

The innovative restoration of the Hippodrome theater, originally a vaudeville theater built in 1914, is drawing theatergoers in droves and leading a resurgence of downtown Baltimore's once-decaying west side.

The two other renovation projects reside in two respected Baltimore universities, which targeted their performing arts centers for long-awaited renovations. Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Institute conservatory of music, whose initial wing was built the year Abraham Lincoln became president, at long last reconnects itself with its surrounding neighborhood, while undergoing renovation and reconstruction of its music spaces. At Towson University, the 32-year-old Center for the Arts, is taking on a new exterior image, while carving out more efficient circulation spaces from its existing core.

The 'hip' is back in Hippodrome

When the curtain rose on opening night of "The Producers" in Baltimore's 90-year-old Hippodrome Theatre in February, it brought to fruition the restoration of the run-down former Vaudeville palace to its original grandeur, signaled the return of Broadway shows to the city, and provided tangible evidence that the long-awaited resurgence of the city's west side was truly under way. The centerpiece of a $70 million redevelopment project, the Hippodrome, which had been shuttered since 1981, now ties into two historic former bank buildings adjacent to the north and a new corner building adjacent to the south to form the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

"This is the anchor project for $1 billion worth of development that's being invested on the west side," says Marks Chowning, VP and executive director of the center, gesturing to a residential and retail mixed-use project under construction directly across Eutaw Street from the theater. "We're putting a lot of butts in seats, which haven't been downtown in years."

Chowning moved to Baltimore from New York two years ago to oversee construction of the project on behalf of Clear Channel Entertainment, which operates the theater as part of a public/private venture involving the Hippodrome Foundation, Maryland Stadium Authority, the city and state, and the Bank of Maryland. Historic tax credits funded a portion of the project, whose site was donated by the University of Maryland.

Architect Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, New York, with locally based general contractor Whiting-Turner, led the Building Team in the renovation of the Hippodrome and bank buildings and the unification of the four separate buildings into a 139,000-sf complex. The theater also now adjoins an existing parking garage located behind the theater.

Characteristic of theaters of the day, the Hippodrome, built in 1914 and designed by renowned theater architect Thomas Lamb, contained minimal lobby space. Connecting the theater with the neighboring buildings provides 21,000 sf of lobby space, as well as added restroom and concession areas. Immediately adjacent to the theater, the former Western National Bank, built in 1890, serves as the north lobby and contains a mezzanine and staircase. It connects to the former Eutaw Savings Bank, built in 1887, now a 5,600-sf multipurpose event space.

Comprised of traditional brick and stone with large arched windows, the new corner building addition to the south of the theater contains a three-story lobby overlooking downtown, in addition to the box office, VIP lounge, and support services for administration and performance, including a new loading dock, which allows scenery to be delivered directly onto the theater stage.

The north and south lobby spaces are open because "the audience likes nothing more than to see itself," says Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer principal Hugh Hardy, AIA. "Part of the event of going out is being in a public space where people can observe each other. It's a great display."

The rounded curve of the back of the auditorium wall extends to the north and south lobbies in an undulating fashion, connecting the three spaces. To improve circulation, new staircases in each lobby replace the theater's two original staircases. On the exterior, glass curtain wall infill connects the buildings where alleyways once ran. The brick, terra cotta, limestone, and brownstone facades of the older buildings were fully restored, maintaining their distinctive and separate identities.

The auditorium was painstakingly restored to its original appearance, although the numbers of seats were reduced from 3,000 to 2,286 to accommodate today's larger patrons. "Half of the theater was deteriorated beyond repair," says Chowning. Water damage destroyed 40% of the ceiling and a third of a large mural above the stage proscenium. Much of the extensive plasterwork was performed by hand. At each side of the stage, Opera boxes, which were removed and replaced with cinderblock walls in 1963 to accommodate wide-screen Cinemascope motion pictures, were recreated.

As renovation began, concrete repair specialists Structural Preservation Systems, Hanover, Md., discovered that the upper half of the balcony contained insufficient rebar in the concrete slab, making it deficient in negative moment capacity. Working with engineer Morabito Consultants, Baltimore, SPS increased the load-carrying capacity of the balcony. Under the balcony risers, SPS applied 1,700 feet of an L-shaped steel reinforced polymer composite strip system called Hardwire. In addition, a 4-inch overlay of lightweight concrete was added to the top of the floor treads.

Until the Hippodrome's renovation, no performance venue in Baltimore was large enough to properly accommodate Broadway shows such as "The Producers," says Chowning. To make this possible, dressing and support rooms were relocated to the basement to allow the stage to be nearly tripled in size to 180x50 feet and seven stories high. In the ceiling above the stage, a four-stage grid structure supplies state-of-the-art rigging for shows. A new orchestra pit, complete with elevator lift, allows more efficient loading of shows and show orchestras.

Peabody puts out a welcome mat

Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Institute music conservatory is located along with other campus buildings on a block in the city's upscale Mount Vernon Place Historic district. Two themes guided the $26.8 million renovation and rehabilitation of the 72,000-sf building, which opens this month. The first theme was to once again open to the public the building, whose music and library wings were built in 1861 and 1887, by turning the building into a gateway through which the public could enter from the urban park, which gives the district its name, into the Peabody campus' redesigned mid-block plaza. This was a major goal, as, over time, the campus became more enclosed unto itself and the building developed the uninviting characteristics of a fortress. The second theme of the project was to enhance the music education and performance capacity of the building by rehabilitating existing spaces and carving out new performance and rehearsal spaces from within the existing structure.

Intense collaboration was required of the Building Team to perform 24,000 sf of new construction and another 24,000 sf of renovation and rehabilitation, all while the building remained open to music students and performances and rehearsals were being conducted, says Steve Bond, project superintendent for the Baltimore office of Gilbane, the project's construction manager.

An unused light well between the music and library wings of the building provided the solution for opening up the Peabody to the public and for tying the surrounding neighborhood into the campus inner plaza. Working with the concept devised by the project's master planner, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, New York, architect Quinn Evans, Washington, D.C., turned the light well and accompanying office space into a French-style grand arcade. Covered by a glass skylight and framed by steel trusses, the arcade serves as the new "main street" that connects the street to the campus. A grand marble stairway, which cascades down the sloping site 20 feet from the street to the campus plaza, also serves as a lobby area for the adjacent main concert stage, Friedberg Hall, which previously had only a small vestibule in which patrons could congregate.

The rehabilitation of the conservatory's existing music spaces concentrated on acoustic isolation measures, designed by Acoustic Dimensions, Norwalk, Conn., to soundproof the rooms. In Friedberg concert hall, the west door was replaced with a heavy-duty door possessing a sound transmission coefficient of 54, says Quinn Evans' principal Carl Elefante, AIA. Sound- and light-lock vestibules were installed at the east and west doors.

The renovation project included the addition of a fourth performance space in the building, the Cohen-Davison Family Theater, which formerly housed two classroom-sized jazz studios. A dividing wall separating the classrooms was torn down and the room was acoustically enhanced room by maintaining the existing heavy masonry walls around the room's perimeter and adding an acoustically isolated ceiling and doors. "The heavy walls make for a resonant sound," says Elefante.

Beneath the historic six-story cast-iron library, the Building Team converted a tiered lecture hall, two-thirds of which was being used as storage space, into the first dedicated group rehearsal hall in the conservatory's history. The demolition of the space involved the use of string gauges to closely monitor the removal of brick arches, which had been inserted between four steel support columns holding up the library. For sound control, the room was remade into a "box in box" configuration. "The room floats completely separate from the building around it," says Elefante. The technique features acoustic isolation joints comprised of 2-inch gaps that run from the foundation through the roof. The floor slab is comprised of a sandwich of structural slab, neoprene and plywood insulation, and a second concrete slab. The ceiling is hung with acoustic isolation hangers.

Arts strike new pose at Towson

When complete in 2005, Towson University's $40 million expansion and renovation of its 32-year-old Center for the Arts will contain the academic departments of music, theater arts, art, and dance. Designed by locally based Design Collaborative, with Gilbane as construction manager, the project entails improving connections to the surrounding campus, the reassembly of the interior spaces to provide a more efficient circulation pattern, and a new four-story, 135,000-sf addition of new program areas to improve adjacencies of departments, building circulation, and the quality of academic spaces.

The addition is heavily laden with windows to enable passersby to see the action inside, such as dancers rehearsing and artists at work in their studios. Stepping down the hillside, the addition entrance at street level symbolically completes the center's efforts to bring the arts from the hilltop down to street level where it's available to the entire campus.

According to Design Collaborative, the renovation and alteration of the center building includes upgrading and replacing the infrastructure and building systems, acoustical upgrades, remediation of hazardous materials, finish upgrades for interior spaces, improved energy efficiency and enhanced pedestrian and vehicle circulation.

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