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Designers weighed facility’s wide range of uses

From production crews to performers to the audience itself, every perspective was equally essential in conceiving and constructing the new Nazareth College Arts Center. 

Doing it under budget-within the existing shell of the center and in consideration of the range of performances destined for it-multiplied the project’s complexity for designers at LaBella Associates P.C. 

The main stage, Callahan Theater, presented the most daunting challenges. Incorporating Rochester City Ballet, Garth Fagan Dance and Rochester Children’s Theatre depended initially on a higher rooftop over the stage to make more space to raise and lower scenery. 

"But when the analysis went through and we found that it was cost-prohibitive, we had to find other ways," said Robert Healy, LaBella senior vice president. 

"What we ended up doing is moving the existing proscenium opening, which is the open box through which the audience views the stage. We moved that slightly to the north, and that allowed us to take advantage of some existing space without losing very many seats and at the same time (to) open up the side wing space, which was another requirement they had," Healy said. 

Some performers, such as Garth Fagan Dance, required that additional off-stage space; in the original theater it was constricted. 

Hired for the job in 2007, LaBella had a team that ranged from four to 12 designers working on the project’s structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and decorative design. A theater consultant out of Canandaigua provided insight in adapting the stage to meet specific and varied production needs. 

Steve Walker of Steve A. Walker Associates was hired partway through the process. Originally from central Illinois, Walker is a structural engineer who specializes as a technical director and lighting and seating designer. At his firm, he combines both, designing stage equipment and theaters, both structurally and mechanically. 

Roughly 40 percent of Walker’s work is international, in cities from Toronto to Hong Kong. Most of his U.S. work extends from New York City to Dallas. 

Every job, no matter how large, has budget constraints. Those are rarely the biggest problem, he said. Reconciling various needs within an existing shell posed the biggest challenge at Nazareth, especially regarding the higher fly space the users were looking for. 

"In the original scheme, they tried to incorporate that by building up higher, which created a number of problems because the greater height increased wind loads and wouldn’t quite fit into the existing foundation. But we basically looked and saw there was a great deal of mechanical equipment and lighting equipment over the stage that we were able to relocate into another portion of the building, which opened up the height for the rigging equipment." 

By choosing motorized rigging equipment, which tends to consume less space, the designers decongested the backstage. 

Another requirement, from the angle of the audience, was a stage view that provided more depth. To do this, engineers reconfigured the existing thrust stage, which originally protruded into the audience by roughly 15 feet. 

An added challenge was maintaining the existing seating layout while expanding accessibility from the lobby. LaBella kept the seating at around 1,000 by moving the stage opening. This eliminated only seats on the right and left, where, without the full thrust stage, viewing would have been compromised anyway, Healy said. 

"In a proscenium opening, where you’re viewing through that open box where the stage curtain is, those side seats weren’t great in terms of being able to see into the depth of the stage and watch the show," he said. 

LaBella replaced all of the seating and staggered the spacing to improve the view. The effect is a warmer, more intimate feel, Don Killaby, LaBella’s interior designer, explained. 

Though the decor changes within the auditorium itself are modest, the new sight lines, acoustics and lighting make watching performances dramatically different. "It’s night and day," Killaby said. "When you walk into the space now, there is an entirely different feel." 

With new finishes, paint and Nazareth’s school color, purple, Killaby was able to stay under budget while making the space warmer, both inside the auditorium and in the lobby outside. 

"We made a conscious effort to address the perception of coldness the previous center had, especially the main lobby, which used to be three sides of glass and not very well defined. 

"When it was cold outside, you felt cold inside, so we’ve contained that now," Killaby said. "There’s a patrons lounge and a new formal art gallery that borders the longest side, so it feels more enclosed." 

A fireplace in the lounge, though fairly inconsequential in the overall design, he said, does a lot to add coziness. 

Outside, LaBella engineers also had to reconfigure the public and campus approaches to the center. 

"If you drive in on the south end of the campus, there’s a major parking lot adjacent to the building, and prior to the renovation, there really wasn’t a front door that announced itself off of that parking lot for people arriving to go to a show," Healy said. 

LaBella solved the problem by making a small addition, allowing for buses to drop off riders at grade level. Once inside, it’s a quick climb or ride up a level to the theater and lobby. 

"There’s also a ticket office down there, if you’re arriving during the day to pick up tickets for a show," he said. 

"Then when you arrive on the campus side, which is up a level and on the main level of the audience chamber, we redressed up that entrance and provided a patrons lounge and an art gallery to open up the existing lobby that was there." 

At the main entrance, on the outside second level, the building’s brick facade has been curved, Healy said, to unify the nearby art department and music school. The idea is to combine the arts programs at the college in a way that is more pronounced, with a courtyard linking them. 

"If you’re walking in on the campus side, from the dormitory side, coming from the west toward the east, and you arrive in that courtyard, it does give a much stronger sense that those three buildings that were separate are unifying the arts programs that Nazareth offers to students," Healy said. 

A supporter of the arts in Rochester, Healy is particularly excited about the project. It further accentuates Rochester’s concentration of music, performance and art, he said, and has the potential to draw more people from outside the area. 

"I really commend (Nazareth) for having the vision and for hanging in there, because the project is difficult. There are a lot of challenges," Healy said. "But I think the upcoming opening is going to have an expression from each of these arts groups, so you can see how they can all work together and just provide that entertainment value for the community, which I think is great." 

rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

09/18/09 (C) Rochester Business Journal. to obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303.


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