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Gold Award: Eisenhower Theater, Washington, D.C.

September 01, 2009 |
Finishes for the Eisenhower Theater were selected to modernize its look

and feel and add elegance to what had been a dull space.

The Eisenhower Theater in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., opened in 1971. By the turn of the century, after three-plus decades of heavy use, the 1,142-seat box-within-a-box playhouse on the Potomac was starting to show its age. Poor lighting and tired, worn finishes created a gloomy atmosphere. The onstage HVAC system couldn't even be used during performances, and there were tons of asbestos in the ceiling.

Two years ago, the local office of Quinn Evans | Architects was brought in to work with the Kennedy Center staff and theater users on a renovation. Because the theater hosts a variety of productions—plays, musicals, and contemporary dance—its many stakeholders—from programming and special events to the handicapped accessibility department—had a wide variety of needs.

These included modernizing the lighting and audio systems, expanding the orchestra pit, improving handicapped accessibility, abating the asbestos, upgrading the dressing rooms, and streamlining theater operations—not to mention updating the theater's aesthetics to modern standards. The Building Team was further constrained by having to maintain the seating capacity while making no significant changes to the structural box that acoustically isolates the theater.

Using a Revit building information model, the architects detailed the entire design down to the individual seat and worked closely with construction manager Whiting-Turner to discover not only the right design and constructability solutions, but also to estimate real-world costs and stay within the project's $17.9 million budget.

To solve the accessibility problem, ramps were introduced at the box tier through the new space available between diagonal bracing members, and the seating area was expanded to accommodate wheelchair seating. To enhance the intimacy of the theater, the balcony fronts at both the box tier and balcony levels were extended to create a softer line around the audience. Total seating capacity was actually increased by 24 seats.

New lighting positions, theatrical rails, dressing rooms, a new audio system, enhancements to the existing HVAC system, and control rooms were all designed to be hidden from view behind the theater's new walls. —Jeffrey Yoders, Senior Associate Editor

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