While audience members may note the soft, comfortable seating and new carpet as they enjoy the opera, theater, and ballet performances in St. Louis, MO-based Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center, most won’t realize the even bigger transformations that have taken place behind the scenes.
“What you don’t see is as important as what you do see,” notes John Guenther, principal at St. Louis, MO-based Mackey Mitchell Associates.
Peter Sargent, dean of Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts, Webster University, agrees. “[The redesign] really did not change the relationship of the audience to the stage. It was all in dealing with and giving life to the supporting area.”
Built in the mid-1960s for a women’s college offering just five productions per year, the Loretto-Hilton Center is now the busiest performing arts center in the Midwest. Two other organizations share the building with Webster, and “to say that we were stretching the use of space with people, storage, and ongoing supplies would be an understatement,” emphasizes Sargent. He explains that the Opera Theater of St. Louis and the Repertory Theater of St. Louis are “permanent tenants” of the building.
“I always wondered how they were able to do what they did. If you ever saw any of their performances and then knew what the back of that space was truly like [before], you would marvel even more at their performances,” says Guenther.
Initial planning for the project began in 1998 and was finished in January of 2002. Approximately 36,000 square feet were added to the building’s backstage area and 20,000 square feet of space were renovated – all without a single interruption to the Center’s performance schedule. Costume shops tripled in size; prop-building facilities were made six times bigger; and the greenroom, dressing rooms, scene shops, dye and craft shops, and offices were all renovated and expanded.
A main ballet studio and a secondary studio were also part of the design. “[The main studio] is really the crown jewel in terms of the composition of this building,” explains Guenther. Webster University wanted the new dance studio to reflect the dimensions and proportions of its existing performance stage. Because of the narrow site of the Center, the solution was to cantilever the addition. Now, dancers can rehearse in a space equal to the space in which they perform.
Before the redesign, spaces were scattered and separated. The greenroom was below the stage, the ballet studio was in the lower level, and scenery and costumes were constantly being moved from place to place for storage. “Just to have all these functions in their proper arrangement at the right levels was a major accomplishment for them – a major step forward,” says Guenther.
“The dance program … never really had a home,” Sargent describes. “Dance majors used to have to use the public facilities to change clothes. They never had their own place to warm up. So, the third floor of the expansion was for our dance program, to give them a home with lockers and a magnificent, magnificent dance studio.”
Natural light also played a big part in the Center’s new design. Horizontal, clerestory windows were introduced; bringing light in from above, these windows allowed for extra wall space and privacy, intentionally screening activity from the public. Shades made of a 15-percent perforated material were built into the windows to block sunlight if necessary.
Eric Neuner, associate, Mackey Mitchell Associates, explains that workstations with data cable and overhead electrical equipment were added to each shop, allowing people to pull down, retract, and move equipment around as they work on theater scenes. Exposed ceilings and concrete floors in the shop and receiving areas give the interior a durable appearance and surface. A wood platform was recessed into the floor of the scene shop annex, making it easy for workers to staple scenes to the floor and work on them. A freight/audience elevator was added, solving both accessibility and scenery transportation issues.
The greenroom, a home away from home for performers, features many creature comforts. Both dance studios have sprung wood floors, and all the building’s shops have cushioned rubber flooring. A pipe grid expands approximately 13 feet off the floor of the main dance studio, allowing different lighting possibilities for performances. An oversized stairwell that unites the Center’s three floors features a window seat at the landing. “The spaces look very nice, but not one is frivolous,” Sargent points out.
The performers’ means of communication within the building was also improved and enhanced. “Each of these rooms is tied into the stage. You can listen to what’s going on on-stage throughout, so everybody knows their cue. It’s fully automated,” explains Neuner.
Sargent adds that all the users are enjoying the new facility. “You can’t describe that kind of comfort and freedom, where it’s easy to do things instead of having to climb around racks to do things.”
Leah B. Garris (email@example.com) is editorial coordinator at Buildings magazine.