The Richard and Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center at Middlesex Community College (MCC) in Lowell, Mass., reimagines a 140-year-old railroad depot as a state-of-the-art performing arts center. The innovative design vision earned Leers Weinzapfel Associates First Place in the Transformation categrory of retrofit’s Metamorphosis Awards.
The railroad depot opened in 1876 and was supplanted by a larger terminal 20 years after opening. As the 20th century dawned, the building became a telephone exchange, theater, movie palace and, finally, a bowling alley. Through these transitions, it lost its impressive clocks, towers and cornice detailing and, after a 1980s fire, its tenants. After sitting vacant for years, MCC acquired the building. The college recognized a tremendous opportunity in downtown Lowell, both in its buildings and its underserved community’s needs. Searching for a home for its long-awaited performing arts center, the college identified new life for the unique depot building as the place for its theater, dance and music departments.
The design challenges of the project were many: The proposed program far exceeded what the existing building could hold. The building’s age and three-decade vacancy took their toll. Daylight streamed in through holes in the brick wall; the roof and windows let the elements in; birds made their homes within; and the masonry’s overall integrity was substantially degraded. Given its historical importance as a gateway to the city and the desire to preserve its presence at Towers Corner, expansion opportunities were limited for a building sitting atop bedrock with almost no site beyond its footprint.
The design for the new center needed to address these challenges while creating an expressive and identifiable home for the students who would bring it back to life. It needed to be program efficient—making new space within the existing building and a careful addition on a sliver of land next to the building—to preserve the original prominence. Structurally, the solution had to go beyond retrofit and embrace the existing masonry exterior’s qualities. Architecturally, the building needed to transcend restoration and express its new use and role in the community. The resulting crafted modern insertion locked with the original building meets these goals.
The completed design accommodates a proscenium theater, music recital hall and dance studio in a simple ovoid shear-wall volume—essentially an “egg” theater— inserted within the 1876 brick shell. The theater’s shape is metaphorical, symbolizing the building’s rebirth and the burgeoning talent of student actors, dancers and musicians. The new insertion’s curved shape serves as the structural core of the building, supporting new spaces and buttressing the restored and reconstructed historic envelope.
Before Photo: LOWELL HISTORIC ARCHIVE and After Photos and Images: LEERS WEINZAPFEL ASSOCIATES
There was no extra space onsite, and nearly all construction work occurred from within the building. The “egg” that became the structural core rose from footings pinned to bedrock, block by block, like the historic masonry façade had 140 years previously.
The “new” is placed in an interconnected balance with the historical, revealing the life inside the building to differing degrees, depending on the time of day, the tenor of activity and the viewer’s position. The addition’s service towers are clad with custom-perforated imagery that highlights the historical and renewed performances within. The wood-paneled “egg” is revealed through the unexpectedly diaphanous façade. The reinstalled tower clocks have an ingenious secret—as day turns to night, the historical details recede, and the façade becomes a frame. The clocks invert and shine like beacons. The volume within glows in stark relief, highlighting the students’ place and inviting the community.
Its outside curve, clad in maple-veneer panels, allows for circulation from the building’s ground floor public lobby front to its academic back. Viewed through the center’s generous sash windows, the egg form delivers a sense of drama illuminated by programmable LED lighting, the color of which can be changed to reflect the mood of the evening’s performance or community events.
On the second floor, the recital hall and dance studio take advantage of the center’s high roof. Along the sidewalk, a linear gallery and lobby display student activity and invite the public through the main entrance at the base of the building’s landmark clock tower.
The new performing arts center is more than reimagining a historic train depot in Lowell. The jewel box with an egg-shaped space inside is an architectural feature and a pivotal inflection point in this postindustrial city’s rebirth.
To read a full feature about the Richard and Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center at Middlesex Community College, see the September-October 2019 issue, page 66, or visit bit.ly/2kCNACr.
ARCHITECT and METAMORPHOSIS AWARD WINNER: Leers Weinzapfel Associates, Boston; Josiah Stevenson, principal in charge; Andrea Leers, FAIA, consulting principal; Kevin Bell, AIA, project manager/project architect; Seung-Jin Ham, AIA, designer; Susan Crowe Knight, AIA, architect
ACOUSTICS, AV: Acentech
MEP/FP/T/CODE: Cosentini Associates
ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER: Epsilon Associates
THEATER: Fisher Dachs Associates Inc.
CIVIL: Green International Affiliates Inc.
GZA, LIGHTING: Lam Partners
RESTORATION: Preservation Technology Associates
STRUCTURAL: RSE Associates Inc.
STANDING-SEAM ZINC WALL CLADDING: Rheinzink
CUSTOM-PERFORATED ALUMINUM PLATE RAINSCREEN: DriDesign
ALUMINUM CURTAINWALL AND STOREFRONT: Kawneer
ALUMINUM-CLAD WOOD WINDOWS: Kolbe
SBS ROOFING: Soprema
ASPHALT SHINGLES: CertainTeed
TOWER CLOCKS: Electric Time Co. Inc.
LARGE-FORMAT FLOOR TILE: Mosa
RESILIENT STAGE FLOOR: Robbins
LINEAR ACOUSTICAL WOOD CEILING: Rulon
THEATRICAL AND ARCHITECTURAL PERFORMANCE LIGHTING CONTROLS: ETC
LIGHT NODE ARRAY: ColorKinetics
COLOR-CHANGING BUILDING LIGHTING: GVA Lighting
INDIVIDUALLY ADDRESSABLE RECITAL HALL LIGHTING: Lumenpulse
FIXED AUDITORIUM SEATING: Series Seating
MOVABLE THEATER SEATING: Wenger