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A historic performance space is transformed to reinforce a campus’ Arts District

Performing Arts Centers

A historic performance space is transformed to reinforce a campus’ Arts District

Connecticut College’s Athey Center for Performance and Research at Palmer Auditorium balances the old and new.


By John Caulfield, Senior Editor | May 10, 2022
Athey Center for Performance and Research at Palmer Center, the result of a two-year makeover.
Connecticut College has revitalized its Palmer Auditorium, opening it up to its New London campus with an eye toward promoting pioneering artistic production and research. Images: (c) Ennead Architects/Aislinn Weidele

Palmer Auditorium, on the campus of Connecticut College in New London, is an Art Deco theater designed by William F. Lamb in 1939, who also designed the Empire State Building in New York City. The theater has a long history of hosting acclaimed artists, musicians, and performers, from Dizzy Gillespie to Yo-Yo Ma.

This spring, the 38,500-sf building entered a new era, thanks to its new name—the Athey Center for Performance and Research at Palmer Auditorium—and a $23 million renovation by a team that included the architecture firm Ennead Architects, which modernized the facility to support teaching, learning and performance across a spectrum of disciplines.

The project dates back to 2018 and took 24 months of construction. It was completed in April, and included a new entrance, façade renewal, and interior renovation to the auditorium, lobbies, lounges, costume and workshop, as well as the teaching, administrative, and support spaces.

“A lot of things needed improvement,” says Brian Masuda, Associate Principal with Ennead Architects, whom BD+C interviewed with Molly McGowan, a Partner at the firm. Prior to the renovation, clerestories in the auditorium had been boarded up, and the building, says Masuda, “was very dark, and kind of shut off from the rest of the campus.” So it was imperative to bring more natural light into the building, including onto its historic wood stairs that were preserved and restored.

The renovation brings natural light into the auditorium
Natural light streams through clerestories that were opened during the renovation.

The renovation opened up three sides of the building with glass door fronts and feature walls. On the building’s historic side, the team replaced deteriorating spandrels with lightboxes made with cast glass. And where appropriate, transparent materials were used. Inside, the lobby window looks down onto the studio. And the theater department, which had been scattered throughout the building, was consolidated within one wing.

McGowan says the renovation “recognizes the history of the building” while, at the same time, making what is now part of the college’s Theater Department more modern. The challenge, says Masuda, was blending the old and the new, from rehanging the lobby’s lighting pendants to adding modern furniture and new carpeting with an Art Deco-like chevron pattern.

SUBTLE RENOVATION ADDITIONS

The building's lobby features new furniture and large windows
The building's refurbished lobby includes modern furniture and cast-glass windows.

About 500 usable square footage were added to the building during the renovation. By making small adjustments to the building plans within the existing footprint, Ennead created a new lounge area and box office with an expanded public lobby. The lobby spaces on two levels were re-imagined to serve as informal teaching and study spaces. Two key elements were introduced at the main level lobby: a highly visible entry to the Theater Department’s administrative suite and a visual connection to the newly created teaching studio. 

The auditorium seating now provides access that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as improved sight lines, better acoustics, a new state, and visual technology upgrades.

“The renovations have resulted in a magnificent transformation that promises to make the Athey Center a destination for the region and an inspiration for future generations of student performers ready to make a difference with their art,” said Connecticut College’s president Katherine Bergeron.

The Building Team on this project included A/Z Corp (GC), Altieri (ME), Silman (SE), and Next Stage (theatrical consultant).

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