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Former Dealership Transformed Into Stunning New U Of H Performing Arts Center

Tom Condon

September 07, 2008

SmithEdwards Architects is on a roll. The Hartford firm will complete two major university-related restoration projects this month: Trinity College's Long Walk (see accompanying article) and the Hartt School's Mort and Irma Handel Performing Arts Center of the University of Hartford.

I visited the arts center, the former Thomas Cadillac property at the corner of Albany Avenue and Westboune Parkway, in the winter, before the new windows and many of the interior amenities went in. It looked promising.

It's now finished and scheduled to open Friday morning. It is tremendously cool, a remarkable and counterintuitive reuse of a commercial building.

The one-story brick building was constructed in 1929 to the design of architect Albert Kahn, well-known for his commercial and industrial buildings, including the mile-long Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Mich. The Hartford showroom was purposely put on the rise commanding the busy intersection.

What becomes clear only on closer examination is that the building is much bigger than it appears. Buildings connect to the showroom section. Cars rolled through the elongated structures for maintenance and final assembly in those early days.

So it was a large space, 55,000 square feet. It still didn't sing out "perfect place for college performing arts center" to many observers. But university president Walter Harrison saw something many others didn't, and made a $22 million bet that a talented architect could turn a home of the Seville and Eldorado into a home for Balanchine and Beckett. Architect Tyler Smith and his colleagues have done it.

The genius of such a restoration is in the arrangement of the interior space. Smith essentially divides the building into its north and south halves, with dance in the southern sector and theater and musical theater in the north (music programs remain at the Fuller Music Center on campus). To that end, the north section has two large and beautiful black box theaters and four smaller teaching and rehearsal studios.

The southern part of the building, nearest Albany Avenue, has five dance studios as well as a community room, a bank branch and a cafe (The Stage Door Cafe I like the name). The cafe seats look out on the active intersection, and there's an outdoor plaza for coffee and last-minute homework.

The new windows afford remarkable natural light, as Kahn intended, and Smith artfully uses steam pipes and other building infrastructure in the interior design.

The placement of the studios and theaters creates gathering spaces near the doors and corridors through the building. He also kept the slightly slanted floors between sections of the building, designing a 55,000-square-foot building with no stairs.

It all works. Kids starting classes were excited. "I'm just happy as hell," said a smiling Harrison as we walked through the facility Tuesday. That the building came in on time and under budget didn't detract from his sunny disposition. Interestingly, the opening of the arts center has drawn some development interest in at least one major abandoned building on Homestead Avenue, which Westbourne Parkway connects with across Albany Avenue.

After the arts center opening on Friday at 11 a.m. which will feature some vintage Cadillacs, including a 1940 model owned by university benefactor Alfred Fuller attention should turn to the west of the property. That is now the home of the aging and decrepit Westbrook Village housing project.

The project is in need of renewal. There is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redevelop that property with a mix of uses that enhance both the neighborhood and the university. This project ought to get a lot of attention in the next year.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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