A $135 million restoration transforms a Modernist icon near the waterfront in Washington, D.C.
By Elizabeth McNamara | From Preservation | July/August 2011
When Arena Stage opened in Southwest Washington, D.C., in 1961, the polygonal concrete structure with a ribbed sheet-metal roof attracted national attention. Designed by the noted Modernist architect Harry Weese and located blocks from the National Mall, the theater harmonized with the new buildings of the Southwest Washington urban renewal area and was lauded by architects and planners for its form and function.
But the urban renewal initiative in Southwest never grew the way developers had hoped. And the concrete construction heralded as groundbreaking in the 1960s fell out of favor. In 1998—the year Weese died at the age of 83—demolition murmurs began circulating among Arena's board of trustees. Before proceeding, they sought proposals from scores of architects, many of whom recommended razing the original theater and later additions, and building anew. One architect, Bing Thom, refused to abandon the Brutalist buildings on Maine Avenue and Sixth Street.
"We have enough of a throw-away society, and a new attitude must be adopted by architects," he says. "And if a [theater's] company is a family, then demolition would be destroying a home."
Thom initiated a $135 million expansion that eliminated the original corridors, offices, and parking lot but lovingly preserved the intimate interior performance spaces Weese created—all under a vast, cantilevered roof and towering glass walls.
Today, Arena's 1961 Fichandler Theater appears virtually untouched. It still accommodates 683 patrons under Weese's sheet-metal roof (though acoustical improvements did eliminate box seating), and retains the signature catwalk that once provided smokers with an outdoor perch.
As for the Kreeger Theater, opened in 1971, its interior staircase was moved, markedly improving acoustics and creating a more intimate setting. The shell of the 514-seat theater was altered slightly, with new entrances and exits for patrons and a new lobby bar, but its modified thrust stage remains intact.
"This is a wonderful design that adds so much to our city," says Tersh Boasberg, former chair of Washington's Historic Preservation Review Board. "And there's special merit because of the importance of this building and this complex to the Southwest and to our city."
Thom also added a third theater to the revitalized arts center. Named the Cradle, the 200-seat space offers a venue for emerging American playwrights. Thom calls the trio of performance spaces, now the Mead Center for American Theater, the "three jewels in a jewel box."
Inside the dramatic lobby of the 200,000-square-foot complex, you can look right to the Kreeger and left to the Fichandler and view icons of the not-for-profit theater movement as you would works of art. Each one is a Modernist monument on display in an astounding gallery of glass.
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