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A Melding of the Arts

A public-private partnership results in a unique children's cultural center that has redefined the fine art of storytelling in downtown Charlotte.

March 01, 2006 |

When adult patrons enter Charlotte's new children's cultural center for the first time, the initial thought that probably comes to mind is chaos.

With virtually no interior walls, the 160,000-sf facility is a sea of whimsical exhibits and sculptures that are straight out of The Cat in the Hat. A wild palette of colors and patterns covers nearly every square inch of the interior, floor to ceiling. Its main circulation path is a gently sloping ramp that slithers through the building, eventually leading to a 570-seat theater, and then up to the second floor, where more "disorder" ensues.

When children enter the center, though, they see "choice and self-direction," says Jeffrey Huberman, FAIA, partner with Gantt Huberman Architects, Charlotte.

"These are imperatives for engaging young people," says Huberman, who's firm designed the $28 million facility in conjunction with New York-based Holzman Moss Architecture.

Dedicated to a former Bank of America executive and local civic leader, ImaginOn: The Joe and Joan Martin Center is one part performing arts center and one part public library.

The teen loft is adjacent to the animation studio and theater rehearsal rooms. The children's library is just steps from the main theater. The library storytelling room is next to the theater box office and main circulation desk. All functions are tied together with the winding circulation ramp, off of which numerous interactive exhibits are strategically placed to engage the children.

The result is a one-of-a-kind children's learning center that is drawing record crowds to downtown Charlotte.

"I've toured shared facilities all over the country," says Huberman. "With a lot of them, you walk in the door and go to the right for one function and to the left for the other function. They're still separate entities. ImaginOn is truly a collaboration of two organizations under one roof."

The facility was born out of a partnership between the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County (PLCMC) and Children's Theatre of Charlotte (CTC), a non-profit organization that long desired a dedicated performing arts space. Former PLCMC executive director Bob Cannon sympathized with the CTC (the PLCMC was also experiencing a space shortage), and in 1997 he teamed with CTC head Bruce LaRowe to create a facility that would redefine the art of storytelling.

By the end of 1999, the two had successfully sold the idea to the county board and to taxpayers, who approved more than $30 million in public funding for the land and construction of the facility. A private fundraising campaign raised an additional $12 million for the long-term operation of the facility, including a $5 million gift from Bank of America in Joe Martin's name.

A joint venture CM-at-risk team of Atlanta-based Hardin Construction and Rodgers Builders, Charlotte, broke ground on the center in March 2003. At the grand opening last October, the line to get in stretched several blocks, says Huberman.

Co-locating two very different organizations was not a simple task. Circulation was a huge issue, given that the facility would see an influx of visitors during daytime school trips and theater show times. "Elevators would not work, and we thought escalators would be too noisy," says Huberman. The design team ultimately went with the long, winding ramp that could double as a waiting area for the main theater. The ramp also provides easy access to—and a bird's-eye view of—the building's many functions.

Location of key elements was also crucial, says Huberman. "Teenagers don't want to be with toddlers," he says. The team strategically placed teen-related functions, such as the teen loft and Tech Central (a 40-unit computer lab where teenagers can learn about everything from PowerPoint to Dreamweaver), far from the children's areas. "They truly have their own area, where they can talk, work on the commuters, or read without having to worry about making too much noise," says Huberman.

The building's concrete-and-glass exterior has been praised by community members and the local media alike for its sensitive use of materials, color, texture, and shapes to evoke the program elements within.

Cylindrical concrete columns support the building's angular roof, which slopes in two directions to signify the integration of the two institutions. Glass curtain wall runs the length of the east and south façades, providing plenty of daylight for the interior spaces. At the building's main entrance on the east façade are three two-story boxes clad in colorful glazed tile that shimmers in the daytime sun. A similar box adjacent to the main theater on the west façade is clad with textured glazed tile.

The main theater is the building's most audacious exterior design element. Clad with textured standing-seam aluminum panels, the curvilinear structure extends more than four stories high, and contrasts with the sharp angular forms of the main structure.

The building's parallelogram-shaped footprint allots generous room for green space and public areas on the block-square site, including landscaped plazas at the entry and at the southwest corner, near the main theater.

ImaginOn is currently registered with the U.S. Green Building Council for a LEED Silver rating. If all goes well, the facility will become Charlotte and Mecklenburg County's first LEED certified building.

Sustainable initiatives include extensive daylighting, energy-efficient lighting, exterior shading devices, C&D waste recycling (78%), and urban redevelopment (the site is a former parking lot).

The team also went to great lengths to specify recycled materials that were manufactured locally. Midway through design, a regional stone quarry discontinued its line of polished stone planned for the project. Rather than ship polished stone from long distances, the design team found a local tombstone/monuments carving operation that could supply stone tiles fashioned from waste material. Other recycled material includes toilet partitions made from plastic detergent bottles and glazed tile made from post-consumer glass and post-industrial grinding paste from recycled computers.

The design team also created an educational program centered on the building's green features. Children can go on green scavenger hunts using documents on ImaginOn's website and signage posted throughout the facility

"There's just so many things going on in this facility," says Huberman.

Construction Costs

General conditions, overhead, insurance $3,917,899
Sitework 1,568,167
Foundations 1,272,761
Superstructure concrete 3,830,283
Exterior wall envelope 2,237,028
Structural steel 1,869,032
Roofing 1,033,096
Interior construction 4,231,592
Theater equipment 626,367
Conveying 163,100
HVAC 2,973,423
Plumbing 437,282
Fire protection 398,541
Electrical 2,813,850
Specialties 913,740
TOTAL $28,286,161

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