This May, construction will begin on a $19 million expansion and renovation of the Boston Conservatory, the renowned music and performing arts academy. Designed by New York City–based Handel Architects, the project will update the institution’s Hemenway Street theater, and add 15,000 square feet of rehearsal spaces in an adjacent new structure. When completed in August 2010, the school’s three disciplines of music, dance, and theater—which are currently spread throughout several smaller buildings—will share facilities under one roof for the first time since the conservatory’s founding in 1867.
“The objective was to create a new central focus for the school in terms of performance spaces,” said Blake Middleton, Handel’s partner-in-charge of the project. “To establish a stronger presence for the conservatory in the neighborhood, as well as to add new programmed space for all three disciplines comingled in one building, which isn’t true of the school’s old buildings.”
Completed in 1948, the theater building has received numerous ad hoc improvements over the years, but Handel’s intervention will mark the first time it has been thoroughly gutted and brought up to contemporary standards. This will involve adding a new control booth and motorized rigging, increasing the sectional volume to enhance the acoustical characteristics, and inserting an orchestra pit, which did not exist before. The renovation will also bring the theater into compliance with ADA code requirements by adding elevators to both the front- and back-of-house spaces. “It’s the political and legal thing to do, but it’s also a major design challenge because of all of the different levels in a theater building,” said Middleton. The renovation’s new amenities did come at a small price: The number of seats in the house had to be reduced from 330 to 315.
Located in what is now an abutting parking lot, the addition takes its cues from the vernacular of the neighborhood, which is almost entirely residential, four-to-six story multifamily dwellings built between 1890 and 1910. “A lot of beige brick, Edwardian flavor,” commented Middleton. “The idea was to have a kind of quiet icon in the neighborhood,” he continued.
The facade is a composition of volumes that step back in scale to respect the lowrise character of the surroundings. Generous “bay” windows framed in dark gray metal panels give way to a larger volume of beige brick, accented with dark gray brick. Inside, student gathering areas oriented toward the street link to the existing building and open onto the large rehearsal spaces. The fourth and highest level cantilevers over the theater. The project contended with tight zoning laws, and had to win neighborhood approval as well as pass a review process with the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Supported by a combination of public and private financing, the conservatory fundraised for over a year and a half, and had the money it needed for the project well in advance of the recession. In fact, it seems that the downturn in the economy may have aided the school by bringing construction costs down. At the beginning of 2009, bidding on the project came back 13 percent under budget: more proof that, for some, there is a silver lining in this cloud.