The work is complete on a $6.3 million renovation of the performing arts center at Our Lady of Mercy School for Young Women in Brighton.
The project included the addition of an art gallery, black box theater and a total renovation of the auditorium.
It caps a string of capital improvements—many to accommodate a growing number of middle school students, an enrollment that has grown by 75 percent over the last four years with the addition of a sixth grade in 2012—at the private Catholic school.
“The performing arts center is the most transformational of all these improvements because it is the center of student life,” President Suzanne Johnston said. “It is the setting for Mercy’s most cherished traditions: golden mass, May Day, spirit day, junior ring day and moving up day.”
The renovations were funded completely by donations raised in a $15 million capital campaign. Sixty percent of the donors were alumni, Johnston said, with the remaining 40 percent parents and grandparents of current students, as well as local business leaders such as Thomas Golisano.
Mercy alumna Kathleen Bonsignore Walgreen and her husband, Cork, contributed $5 million, the largest single donation in Mercy’s 85-year history.
The performing arts center project, completed in two phases, was done by LeChase Construction Services LLC. Phase one began in March 2015 with the core project, a complete gutting and renovation of the auditorium, built in the 1940s. It included new seats, a new curtain, new sound and lighting system and its first air-conditioning unit.
“The auditorium has not been touched since the 1940s,” said Michelle Schleher, project manager at LeChase. “There is still a lot of character even though we modernized it. We kept it to the original feel. We just updated the mechanics.”
In addition, crews updated the lobby adjacent to the auditorium and did renovations to the senior lounge on the second floor and rehearsal rooms on the third floor.
Phase two of the project began last summer as crews were still working on phase one, Schleher said. The phase involved taking the roof off the middle school gymnasium to begin construction of the black box theater, a performance space shaped like its name with an open area for flexible seating and black walls for a neutral backdrop.
“The trickiest part of our job was the timeline we had to complete it. It involved a lot of teamwork and subcontractors,” Schleher explained, involving 65 workers from various local trade unions at the height of the project along with workers from two specialized unions from Syracuse.
The addition of the black box theater required a major renovation of the gym, which Schleher said resulted in the school getting “more bang for their buck.” The gym has a new roof, new floor and new lighting.
“As for the theater, people say even though it is a new addition, it looks like it has always been there,” Schleher said. “The designers did a good job of designing to that 1940s period.”
The design team is the Rochester-based firm SWBR Architecture, Engineering & Landscape Architecture P.C. The historical aspect of the building presented both opportunities and challenges for the project manager, Mark Maddalina, a senior associate with the firm.
He was faced with the responsibility to preserve the qualities that merited Mercy’s landmark status with the town. The building originally was designed by Leo Ribson, the drafter who worked with J. Foster Warner, designer of other Rochester landmarks such as the George Eastman House, the Sibley Building and the Granite Building.
“We had all the original drawings. They themselves were art,” Maddalina said. “It was a brilliant design and we had a lot of respect for that. Were we to try to design like that today we probably could not do it.”
Maddalina and his team aimed to preserve the beauty of the historical building while upgrading it to meet current safety codes, accessibility needs and maximum usability for theatrical productions.
“We approached it with respect and a sensitivity to what we thought would have been intended by Ribson,” Maddalina said. “There was tremendous sensitivity and emotion with regard to renovation of the auditorium. All major events of school life have happened there.”
To meet safety standards, the design called for the installation of a sprinkler system throughout the building. To serve the need for better accessibility within the performing arts center, the design team took on a large task.
“We needed to install an elevator, and that was not for the faint of heart,” Maddalina said. “We had to remove the core of the building to put it in there. But now the elevator connects everything, every floor in that wing.”
The performing arts facility is now compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Making the space comfortable and theatrically sound posed a different set of challenges.
“We had to remove the beautiful scalloped ceiling to install the air conditioning. Much of that original work was done by hand and was difficult to replicate,” Maddalina said.
To update the sound, SWBR called in consultants from New York City to do an acoustical study. For lighting, Maddalina’s team installed LED fixtures that dramatically improve the capability lighting designers will have for performances in the auditorium.
“Performing art spaces are highly specialized. Vocal, theater, orchestra—there are many different ways to use the hall,” Maddalina said. “We were careful to emulate the 1940s look. It was a wonderful way to integrate new technology while preserving the fabric of the space.”
The design work began 10 years ago, Maddalina said, noting it is not unusual for plans to take years to come to fruition as the ideas are approved and the capital is raised.
“It has exceeded our expectations in many ways,” Johnston said of the finished project. “We are honoring the past and positioning for the future.”
The $15 million capital campaign also increased the endowment fund.
“Our mission is to make Mercy affordable for everyone who wishes to come,” Johnston said.
Tuition varies depending on grade, with an average of $8,500 a year. Some 38 percent of students receive financial assistance.
Johnston believes another investment enabled by the capital campaign, redesigning the curriculum, has paid off as Mercy has moved away from the state Regents program to the Conley college and career readiness standards.
“We re-did 144 classes with the aim of making sure our young women were ready for college, and our rate of scholarships shows its working,” Johnston said.
The 2015 graduating class merited $23.6 million in college scholarships, which meant each graduate won an average award of $170,000.
Mercy is planning a dedication ceremony in May to unveil the new performing arts center.
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