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A Welcome Production

The proposed arts center looks promising, if conservative.


This is the block slated for the proposed Virginia Center for the Performing Arts. The demolition is the first phase of the $168 million project, for which backers still need to raise a significant amount before it becomes a reality. Recently unveiled architectural plans for the complex by Wilson Butler Architects, a Boston firm, appear contextual and promising, if conservative. Expect no Frank Gehryesque Disney concert hall, the iconic theater that recently opened in Los Angeles.

Wisely, the scheme preserves and incorporates both the modernistic Grace Street side of the Thalhimers building and the exotic Carpenter Center, a former movie palace that for 20 years has served as a principal presentation venue.

Two major new performing spaces will be carved out of the Thalhimers space — a ground-level jazz club, and upstairs, a 200-seat playhouse.

Outside on Grace, bells and whistles in the form of eye-catching lighting and signage will be added to the tailored, post-World War II structure (Carneal and Johnston, architect). But its basic, modernist, stone fa‡ade (which bears a resemblance to New York's recently transformed landmark, Museum of Modern Art) will remain mostly intact.

At the adjacent Carpenter Center, significant and long-needed patron amenities such as expanded lobbies, concessions and restrooms will be added. These will be carved out of former retail spaces fronting Grace.

The auditorium, with its multicolored, painted walls (restored intelligently in 1982 by Marcellus Wright Cox & Smith) remains as is, while the stage house will be enlarged considerably to accommodate bigger productions.

On the exterior, the elaborate, long-lost marquee gets rebuilt. This should restore considerable dignity to the giddy, Hollywood-baroque fa‡ade of the movie palace that opened in 1927 as a Loew's (John Eberson was the architect).

But downtown boosters are banking on new construction on the north side of the block for razzle-dazzle. The music hall, which will be squeezed onto an extremely tight site along Broad Street (and be attached to the Carpenter Center), will contain flexible seating for up to 1,150 patrons.

This auditorium will be entered from a three-story, rotundalike lobby at the corner of Broad and Sixth streets.

Each of these old and new performance spaces — as well as a gallery and such supporting facilities as offices and rehearsal spaces — will be served by well-situated loading bays midblock on Seventh Street.

Will the design of the music hall on Broad Street play to the back row? Developers are banking on this building serving to reinvigorate the district.

Wilson Butler (with local associate architects Glave & Holmes and BAM) evolved the exterior design by taking architectural cues from the immediate environs. This should make the building's Broad, Sixth and Seventh facades highly contextual, polite and conservative.

The architect considered the design for the proposed, eight-story federal courthouse in the block immediately to the east. Here, architect Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale architecture school, has proposed a looming, mostly gray stone and glass structure that is essentially classical in detailing, if distressingly bombastic in form and self-centered in attitude.

The look of the new music hall will be closer in scale and spirit to the elegant and diminutive, art-deco Miller & Rhoads building a block west.

While Wilson Butler has taken major cues from the classicism and exterior finishes of these neighbors, it has also gone to considerable lengths to make the music hall structure airy, inviting and — if the muses kick in — enticing.

While there wasn't much choice on so tight a footprint, the structure will establish a strong urban wall along Broad Street. This is important because Broad Street is looking awfully snaggletoothed of late. There's the seedy, state-owned parking lot at Ninth and Broad; the new courthouse will have an unnecessary parklike space at Seventh and Broad; the Miller & Rhoads block has been diminished by the removal of the old Woolworths; and all the commercial buildings in the 400 block of Broad were demolished for an asphalt parking lot (a suburban-scaled eyesore that looks bush league on Broad Street).

Happily, the Performing Arts Center should reinforce the urban integrity of this stretch, while introducing a pleasing, classically-proportioned, skeletallike, glass pavilion. At night, its huge window openings should serve as a magnetic beacon.

To break up the fa‡ade's block-long mass, however, the building will have three sections. Two are "bookends" that will form crisp, right angles at the Sixth- and Seventh-street ends of the building, respectively. These will bracket the slightly recessed auditorium structure in the center.

When patrons enter the building near Sixth and Broad, they will find themselves in an oval-shaped lobby. This space rises three stories to a ring of clerestory windows that rise to a roof that juts slightly upward at a jaunty angle. Picture a person who knows how to wear a beret.

A gallery space near the corner of Broad and Seventh should add much-needed energy, especially during the day, from the sidewalk since the theaters will be mostly evening destinations.

If there's any question as to the intent of the pavilionlike music hall, passersby can look upward. In the upper reaches of the fa‡ade, in seven niches, allegorical figures will be placed representing various performance arts such as dance, classical music, theater, opera and jazz.

What could be more classical than sculpted figures on the fa‡ade of a building? The Greeks and Romans loved this stuff in the pediments of their temples. But God will be in the details here. As currently proposed, these look architecturally extraneous, visually gaudy and patronizing. Less would be more here.

But given the restrictions — and prominence — of the site, Wilson Butler and its local associates have presented a savvy and elegant plan that should take its place handsomely in the procession of important public buildings on the south side of East Broad Street downtown.

But equally important, the architect and the arts foundation have seemingly thought through every step of the theatergoing experience and envisioned a sequence of places and spaces that will be welcoming — and even exciting — to experience.

Ultimately, of course, it's what's onstage that sells tickets. But the container looks good. S

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