Case Study

School’S Theater Renovation Creates Unique Space For Assemblies

September 22, 2020 - by Thomas Renner

On the Middlesex School website, a young man describes what life is like at the Massachusetts private school this way. “You are part of the family the second you walk on to the campus,” the student says, “and you’re going to be treated like that by every single person here.”

A lot of schools speak of their family atmosphere, but few live it to the level of Middlesex. The school for students in grades 9-12, based in Concord, includes approximately 400 students and 100 faculty members. Some faculty members also live on the 350-acre campus, along with 70 percent of the students. There is a sense of community at the school that is embraced from the Head of School all the way down to the incoming freshmen.


The only thing missing, however, was a gathering spot that could accommodate the entire campus. Like all big families, it can sometimes be challenging to bring everyone together under one roof. Bonding time is essential, but it can be difficult to squeeze more than 500 people into a singular space. Especially for a school that was founded in 1901. Space is limited, architectural roots have been planted and expansion unlikely. There was not one singular indoor space where the entire Middlesex “family” could congregate.


The school addressed that issue last year, unveiling a renovated theater that can accommodate the entire campus population. The renovation covered 55,000 square feet and required about 18 months to complete, and was unusually broad in scope. There were multiple architectural challenges as well that confronted CBT Architects, which designed the new space. But when it was completed, the project created a place that Middlesex coveted: a space that brings the entire family together.


“The entire community gathers there on a weekly basis, and it’s very comfortable,” said Steve McKeown, the school’s project manager. “It provides a space where our community can gather, and that’s something that is very important to our school.”


Setting the Stage
The renovated building, called the Bass Arts Pavilion and Danoff Visual Arts Center, includes the Kaye Main Stage Theatre. Seating capacity at the theatre was expanded by about 100 seats to 495, and includes a balcony. The project called for a dramatic re-envisioning of the space, which was originally built in the 1960s. The plan also needed to maintain the original walls and roof structure and stay within the existing footprint of the building.


The theater includes a motorized orchestra pit that can be raised to the stage level. There is also a 180-seat black box theatre for rehearsals, theater classes and smaller performances. Behind the scenes are state-of-the-art resources for casts and stage crews, including large, brightly lit dressing rooms and a dedicated space for hair and makeup. “We won’t have to create a special place for musicians on stage any more or remove seats from the audience for them,” McKeown said.


Besides serving as a space where the entire school community can gather, the theater is also a pivotal part of the curriculum at Middlesex. More than 30 percent of the student body sings in choruses, and more than one-third take instrument lessons and perform in musical groups. The school’s theatrical productions are also of higher quality than most high school plays.


“There’s a commitment to theater and the arts,” McKeown said of the school that produced “The Office” star Steve Carell, Academy-award winning actor William Hurt and actress Jessica Tuck, among others. “It’s not any different than our commitment to clubs, arts or athletics. We provide spaces for students who are interested in a variety of things. Some students may be interested in ceramics, so we have a space for that. Or visual arts, drawing, painting or digital arts. There’s a lot of cool opportunities for students to find their promise.”


New Art Spaces, Too
The school also created a unique visual arts center where students will find dedicated spaces for ceramics, digital photography, digital media and studios for drawing and painting. There is also a gallery with work from professional artists and Middlesex students that is named after a graduate of the school.


The upper floor of the visual arts center includes two art history rooms and a multi-purpose space that overlooks the campus and a mindfulness studio that overlooks a pond.


One of the school’s traditions calls for every graduate to carve a plaque that represents home states, favorite sports or meaningful experiences. The plaques, which started in 1904 when the school handed out its first diplomas, will be displayed in the building.


There is also a new “mindfulness” space that will provide “emotional and intellectual space to reflect and recharge,” according to the architect. Workers also improved a courtyard to provide accessible entry to adjacent buildings and includes a terrace that serves as an exterior performance venue.


“Students will enjoy the upgrade that modernity requires,” said Kathy Giles, the former Head of School. “We designed these buildings to provide our students with great, well-lit space and now the facilities’ features reflect the sophistication and excellence of the work that’s being done there.”


A Safe Place
Six double-leaf acoustical smoke vents manufactured by The BILCO Company were installed on the roof of the new theater. Automatic smoke vents protect property and aid firefighters in bringing a fire under control by removing smoke, heat and gases from a burning building. This ensures better visibility, evacuation time, and protection against fire spread, as well as reduced risk of smoke inhalation and structural damage. They are activated upon the melting of a fusible link, and are ideally suited for large expanses of unobstructed space such as factories, warehouses, auditoriums and retail facilities.


The smoke vents used on this project were equipped with electric motor operators that allow them to be opened and closed remotely for ventilation. BILCO’s acoustical vents provide industry-high STC and OITC sound ratings to guard against outside noise intrusion so that the inside performance won’t be disturbed.


“The features that were included in the smoke vents were geared to student safety,” said Michelle Oishi, the lead architect on the project. “That was of paramount importance. There were also space considerations, and the automated aspect was important due to the fact that we wanted very few things interfering with the rigging sets.”


The vents were also painted with a jet black powder coat finish to add durability and help enhance the environment for theatrical productions. Ryan Cosmini of Pace Representatives procured the smoke vents for the contractor, J.S. Mortimer, Inc. C.E. Floyd served as the general contractor for the project.


Unique Project, Unique School
While the overarching goal was to create a space where the entire campus could congregate, the project was incredibly complex in its scope. It required the architectural team to reimagine the entire space. They faced an early predicament when studies revealed wetlands and riverfront restrictions surrounded the existing center on three sides. The design team took creative steps to expand the site without triggering permitting hurdles or imposing on the natural barriers.


“The theater is the linchpin for that portion of the campus,” Oishi said. “It’s the continuation of the academic ribbon.”


The project also needed to stay in character with the school. While modernity in architecture is beautiful, the Middlesex renovation needed to remain true to the architectural appeal of buildings that were designed more than a century ago. “We make every effort to have the building reflect the school,” Oishi said. “Middlesex School has a nice design history. Each project reflects the culture of the school. The project had to stay in character with Middlesex School and honor its history.”


Middlesex School features 18 buildings on its 250-acre campus, which is located just outside of Boston. The campus includes a library, chapel, dormitories, gymnasium and staff offices. The school was founded in 1901 by Frederick Winsor Jr., the son of a Civil War surgeon, and the campus was designed by John Charles and Frederick L. Olmsted. Their father, Frederick, is considered to be the father of American landscape architecture, and his sons followed in their father’s footsteps and their work was included in a number of high-profile projects.


Now, the campus has a new crown jewel – and a place where everyone can assemble. “Construction’s exciting, but it can be a slight burden,” McKeown said. “The students’ reactions when they saw it finally completed were pretty cool. For a long time, it was just something that was going on behind a fence. They were shocked at how amazing the space was.”

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