Sunday, April 07, 2002

Dayton arts center prepares for takeoff

The $121 million complex, opening next year, will be home to symphony, opera and ballet and gives the city a place to pin its hopes

By Janelle Gelfand,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DAYTON — Even with the din of jackhammers and an obstacle path of construction debris, the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Center for the Performing Arts is a breathtaking accomplishment.

[photo] The architect's model of the performance center
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        Eleven months before it opens on March 1 next year, the $121.5 million center at Second and Main streets is on target, and excitement is mounting. Its opening is timed to coincide with the city's “Inventing Flight” celebration.

        “For me, success will be that the people in Dayton think it's terrific, and that it is theirs,” says architect Cesar Pelli, who also designed Cincinnati's Aronoff Center. “I'm dying to hear music there.”

        With the center, the locals say, Dayton is poised to become a significant regional player in the arts.

        The Schuster Center is a linchpin in Dayton's downtown development, a glowing attraction that's expected to bring suburbanites to the city and add luster to a downtown that has lost its cachet as a retail destination. Hope is high for the complex, which covers most of a city block. It's expected to be not only an entertainment mecca but will include luxury housing, serve as a public gathering place, and as a local arts forum.

Work progresses inside Mead Theatre.
(Gary Landers photos)
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    The Schuster Center is two separate buildings joined as one: a performing arts center and an office-condominium tower.
    Mead Theatre — The main, 2,300-seat theater, with three balconies. A special feature is the blue domed ceiling, with concentric circles of fiber-optic lights depicting the constellations on the night of the first Wright Brothers flight 100 years ago.
    The stage can expand or contract to allow for opera or Broadway musical pit orchestra, symphony orchestra or chamber orchestra.
    Mathile Black Box Theatre — 150-seat theater or rehearsal space. Its size is identical to the stage in Mead Theatre.
    Wintergarden — A block-long atrium along Second Street
    Dayton Power and Light Community Stage — For impromptu, informal performances; in the Wintergarden
    Restaurant — 120 seats, 60 of which will spill into the Wintergarden. A chef has not yet been hired.
    Adjacent to the Wintergarden: Box office, coat check and Performance Place lobby
    Performance Place — 18 stories; nine stories of condominiums and eight floors of office space. Condos range from a 1,700 square-foot, one-bedroom unit to a 4,200 square-foot, three-bedroom penthouse.
    Total cost: $121.5 million
    How funded: Nearly $111 million has been pledged from corporations, individuals, foundations and government sources. The remaining amount will come from condominium sales in Performance Place.
    Project team: Cesar Pelli and Associates, architects; Jaffe Holden Acoustics Inc., acousticians; Second and Main, Ltd., developer; GBBN Architects, architect of record; Messer/Danis LLC, general contractor; THP Limited, Inc., structural engineer; Heapy Engineering, mechanical/electrical engineer.
    Owner and operator: The Arts Center Foundation (ACF), a nonprofit organization founded in 1986. ACF also owns the Victoria Theatre, which reopened in 1990 after a $17.5 million renovation, and the Metropolitan Arts Center, which has the Loft Theatre, home of The Human Race Theatre Company and other arts organizations.
        Its performance spaces were designed specifically for Dayton's cultural institutions. Its 2,300-seat theater will be the new home of the Dayton Philharmonic, Dayton Opera and Dayton Ballet. For the first time, Dayton will have a venue large enough to stage productions such as The Phantom of the Opera.

        The complex will include an 18-story office and condominium tower called Performance Place, a small black-box theater, an upscale, 120-seat cafe and a new garage.

        But its most spectacular statement is the soaring Wintergarden, a seven-story, block-long, wrap-around glass lobby, that organizers hope will be a hothouse of public activity. On its indoor plaza, which will have 30-foot-tall palms, visitors can see daytime performances on a public stage, lunch in a trendy bistro, and gravitate for a bite after the show or coffee before the symphony.

        “An evening at the theater starts well before you take your seat, and before the performance starts,” Mr. Pelli says. “The theater receives you, welcomes you, makes you feel that this is a very special occasion.”

        It is the centerpiece in Dayton's evolving entertainment district. Concentrated in one block on Main Street — soon to be renamed “Avenue of the Arts” — will be five theater spaces, including the 19th-century-era, beautifully renovated 1,141-seat Victoria Theatre and the 219-seat Loft Theatre.

        Dayton's arts community and its backers hope the city no longer will play second fiddle to larger arts communities in Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.

        “People have to understand, there's much more art and culture going on in Dayton than they think about,” says Dr. Benjamin Schuster, who, with his wife, Marian, contributed $8 million to the center that will bear their names.

        “All the new performing arts center will do is to embellish what already exists. And it will be a shining light for the Dayton area,” Dr. Schuster says.

        Indeed, the Schuster Center will take a prominent place in the changing cityscape. Although Dayton's revival boasts two other newcomers — the $21.1 million RiverScape park on the Great Miami River, and Fifth Third Field, home of the Class A Dayton Dragons baseball team — it could lose its Elder-Beerman store when the store's lease expires in June 2003.

        “Downtown is not the right word anymore,” says Peter Horan, president of Second and Main, Ltd. the developer overseeing the project, during a hard-hat tour of the center. “People of the region need to see this area as one of the neighborhoods.”

        For Neal Gittleman, music director of the 70-year-old Dayton Philharmonic, it was a last chance after several failed ideas for a new orchestra home.

    Oct. 1 — Time Capsule Placement. A time capsule that belonged to Rike's-Lazarus will be placed into the new building at 5:30 p.m.
    Jan. 14 — Naming of the Avenue. Main Street is renamed “Avenue of the Arts” in a public ceremony.
    Feb. 7 — Art in the Halls. Artwork by elementary school children will decorate the halls. The art will become a permanent display.
    Feb. 18-27 — School Children on Tour. Up to six guided tours per day will be given. Feb. 22 — Hard-Hat Concert. The entire construction team is given a free concert, in a fully-staged “dry run” of opening night.
    Feb. 24 — Donor Unveiling. Donors who gave $5,000 and up will be honored with a glass-wall unveiling where their names are inscribed.
    Feb. 27-28 — Weekday Events. Second Street will be closed for lunchtime performances (11:45 a.m.-12:30 p.m.) by marching bands, dance troupes, choirs and street performers. Box lunches will be available.
    Feb. 28 — Gala Weekend Begins. A black tie dinner in the Wintergarden for 580 patrons ($1,000 per person) has a waiting list.
    March 1 — Grand Gala Performance. A potpourri of local and national artists. (Tickets are $100, $300 and $500.)
    March 2 — Community Open House. The free afternoon includes a building dedication ceremony, a ribbon cutting, and day-long multicultural programming in the Wintergarden.
    March 6-8 — The Dayton Philharmonic inaugural concert
    March 22, 28 and 30 — Dayton Opera presents Verdi's Aida
    April 8-13 — Victoria Theatre Association presents Blast!
    May 2 and 4 — Opera diva Denyce Graves will give a solo recital
    June 18-July 12 The Phantom of the Opera, Broadway National Tour
    Information: 937-228-7591
        “That was maybe the hardest thing — to realize there was a lot of pressure riding on this effort and we had to figure out a way to make this one work,” Mr. Gittleman says. “Once the fund-raising began, it became clear that the pent-up demand for this was so strong, the community wasn't going to let it fail.”

        Of the $111 million pledged to the project, $45 million was raised in the first 12 months, says Mark Light, president of the Arts Center Foundation, which will own and manage the center.

        Recently, a $1,000-a-plate opening night gala sold out two weeks after save-the-date postcards were sent. (There's a waiting list.)

        The performing arts center site is that of the former Rike's-Lazarus department store. Part of the aim of Second and Main, Ltd., a group of philanthropic and business leaders who set out to develop it, was to have “not just a performance hall, but a series of activities in that block that would take life to it continually,” Mr. Horan says.

        “At the time (about 10 years ago), downtown retail was failing, and someone wanted to build a discount vertical mall,” he says. “The business leadership said, this is a short-term fix. We can't let this happen in the heart of downtown.”

Architectural challenge

        Still, the long, narrow site had its challenges. Mr. Pelli solved the problem of where to put a lobby by creating an atrium along the entire Second Street facade. A monumental, 40-foot-high elliptical staircase will lead from the Wintergarden up to the balcony lobby level, overlooking the indoor plaza. On all three theater levels, patrons will enter from side — rather than rear — entrances.

        “This design was made to fit into a tight site, and to make it fit as well as possible into the city,” says Mr. Pelli. (To compare, Cincinnati's Aronoff Center sits on a larger site, and had different challenges, which included building three theaters, each with its own lobby.)

        The main auditorium — to be called the Mead Theatre — is “the most vertical theater” Mr. Pelli has ever designed. Although the hall is still a dense web of scaffolding, one can peer up at a series of elliptical cones, soaring high into the space.

        “We end up with a small ellipse, and through it you will see the sky and the constellations (in fiber-optics) as they were the day the Wright Brothers flew for the very first time,” Mr. Pelli says. “It will be like a huge telescope to the sky — the sky 100 years ago.”

Intimate feeling

        “It's one of the most thrilling things, to think that we're finally going to be able to put what we do in a wonderful space like this,” says Thomas Bankston, Dayton Opera artistic director, viewing the stage still under construction.

        The proscenium opening is large — 56 feet wide by 34 feet high, which will enable the company to mount grand-scale productions such as Verdi's Aida,that will inaugurate the hall's first season.

        Three balconies rise above the main floor; the deepest is only 10 rows.

        “Even though it's a large space, it feels quite small,” Mr. Gittleman points out. “People in the balcony will be close to the stage.”

Audience surrounds orchestra

        The hall's acoustics were designed by Jaffe Holden Acoustics of Norwalk, Conn., keeping in mind the hall's primary tenant: the Dayton Philharmonic. (One of the firm's most stunning projects was the recent renovation of Cleveland's Severance Hall.)

        The most remarkable acoustical feature is the way the orchestra will be thrust 25 feet into the hall, seated on platforms with the audience on three sides. (In this configuration, it will seat 2,155.)

        This “surround-sound” position “creates more of a one-room concert hall, because the strings and woodwind sections are almost entirely out into the hall,” says acoustician Mark Holden, whose company achieved success with the same idea in the Weidner Performing Arts Center in Green Bay, Wis.

        “Reducing the distance between the orchestra and the audience is one of the key things that extending the orchestra does,” he says. “It creates this contact that is really exciting.”

        Acoustical reflectors — six “clouds” weighing about 4,000 pounds each — will fly over the musicians' heads. For other uses, such as Broadway shows or contemporary dance, the hall can be “tuned” with a series of sound-absorbing panels in sidewall pockets and the attic.

Sound is paramount

        How will it sound? The principal players are holding their collective breaths. Acoustic design is a tricky science, and not always successful. The Philadelphia Orchestra is still struggling with the acoustics of its new Verizon Hall in the $265 million Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in December.

        “What we are looking for is resonance and warmth,” Mr. Gittleman says. “That's what every orchestra wants; a warm sound. A sound that you can hear, but has some glow to it, and has just the right amount of reverberation.”

        As the arts groups anticipate moving to their new home, emotions are running high.

        “It sort of feels like a freight train rolling down a track. Now it's certainly not going to stop,” says Dione Kennedy, executive director of the Victoria Theatre and Dayton Opera. “For the Dayton Opera, going from a home at Memorial Hall that is less than adequate, to a hall that will allow us to do everything is an opportunity the company has never had.”

        Says Mr. Gittleman, “I go in two directions. One is this sort of manic excitement. And the other is, just stay calm so you'll be able to deal with whatever bumps are in the road.

        “I know there will have to be adjustments, and there will be days when I'm going to feel like screaming. But I'm going to be screaming about something which is much better than anything we've ever had.”

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