Middlesex Community College Resurrects a Historic Train Depot as its Academic Arts Center

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 venue. Twenty years in the making, the $20 million center is a dramatic extension to the college’s second campus. The realization of a structure stipulated in the campus’ master plan but long left unrealized, it provides a new collection of spaces focused on the student and surrounding community in a technically intensive environment.

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 venue.

BRIEF HISTORY

The city of Lowell was founded in the early 19th century as a water-powered textile center and grew to become a symbol of the industrial revolution and the era’s inherent commercial and social change. Opened in 1876, the city’s distinguished Boston and Maine Railroad Depot was emblematic of its time, but burgeoning transit demands quickly made it obsolete, and it was supplanted by a larger terminal 20 years after opening. As the 20th century dawned, the building subsequently 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, the Lowell National Historical Park, within which the building was located, officially recognized its significance and saved it from the wrecking ball. The Washington, D.C.-based National Park Service (NPS) then embarked on a decade-long stabilization effort of the depot, reinforcing its structure and reconstructing its original storefront and towers. By the early 2000s, these efforts turned the depot into a viable redevelopment opportunity.

Well established on its nearby Bedford, Mass., campus—but seeking to expand— MCC recognized tremendous opportunity in downtown Lowell, both in its buildings and in the needs of its underserved community. Adding a second campus there in 1987, the school’s core embrace of the integral relationship between student and community guided the college’s lease, acquisition, and two subsequent decades of building restorations and renovations.

Searching for a home for its long-awaited performing arts center, the college recognized new life for the unique depot building as the headquarters for its theater, dance and music departments. In partnership with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it acquired the depot from the federal government and began a 10-year realization process.

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
The design challenges of the project were many. The proposed program far exceeded what the existing building could contain. Even with the NPS efforts, the building’s age and three-decade vacancy took their toll. Day- light streamed in through holes in the brick wall; the roof and windows let the elements in; birds made their homes within; and the overall structural integrity of the masonry was substantially degraded. Given its historical import as a city gateway and the desire to preserve its presence on seminal Towers Corner, opportunities for building expansion were limited on a building sitting atop bedrock with no site extension possible.

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 through a careful addition on a sliver of land next to the building—to preserve the prominence of the original. 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 result is a crafted modern insertion into the original building that meets these goals.

The new center places scholarship in context, revealing deepened connections to history and community. Each space within the building is shaped and scaled to student performance. Systems and tools are designed into the building for teaching the craft of performance and expanding learning opportunities.

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 efficient curved shape of the new insertion serves as the structural core of the building, supporting new spaces and buttressing the restored and reconstructed historic envelope. New additions nearly double the area available within the building. A new basement, carefully mapped to bedrock below the original building’s dirt floor, surrounds the core. A thin metal-clad mechanical addition, in the spirit and tradition of nearby additions to historic masonry mill buildings, redefines a beyond-repair building edge.

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 “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, tenor of activity and position of the viewer. 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 as beacons. The volume within glows in stark relief, highlighting the students’ place and inviting the community in.

SPACE DETAILS

The design of performance teaching space is closely tied to pedagogy, to the strengths and abilities of student performers, and to institutional goals, accommodating diverse experience levels and an openness to all- comers in malleable spaces.

The major space in the “egg” is a 177- seat flexible studio theater—the shear walls of which support the building. The space descends from the first-floor lobby into the basement to create an intimate audience chamber with excellent sight lines in an off-Broadway style. The overall volume of the space is limited, by external factors and by design. The stage is shallow—the audience is pulled in tight to the performer—and the surfaces are treated acoustically to accommodate diverse student voices.

The audience chamber’s shape is intended to always feel full; the curving sides pulling attendees to the center within view of the performer. The front rows are reconfigurable and sit on the flat-floor stage to allow the space to transform from a traditional proscenium-style space to a thrust stage to an in-the-round. Additional rows can be added to increase capacity in a lecture configuration.

PHOTOS: Robert Benson Photography

About the Author

Kevin Bell, AIA
Kevin Bell, AIA, an associate with Leers Weinzapfel Associates, Boston, leads and coordinates digital technologies and their incorporation in the design process.

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