Difficult mission is accomplished


Multipurpose performing halls have typically given theater-goers plenty to complain about.

If a facility is suitable for intimate drama, naysayers argue, it usually doesn't have proper acoustics for a symphony orchestra. And if it functions well as a recital hall, it probably won't have the backstage facilities necessary for full-scale theatrical productions.

But at the Peggy & Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts, the $4 million multipurpose facility that opens tonight, performers and patrons alike may be hard pressed to find anything to knock.

Its design team, led by the local architectural firm of Richter Cornbrooks Gribble Inc., set out to prove it's possible to build one hall that can showcase all of the performing arts -- including ++ music, theater, dance and film -- without compromising any of them.

Although it may be weeks or even months before enough different groups actually test the limits of this privately funded performing arts mecca, the designers appear to have accomplished their mission.

With fewer than 550 seats, the Gordon is intimate enough that no one in the audience will ever be farther than 70 feet from the stage. Yet it is technologically sophisticated enough that it can be transformed to more than a dozen different configurations to suit a particular medium. Unpretentious, comfortable, eminently versatile, it sets a new standard for multipurpose facilities in Maryland and beyond.

Built as an addition to the Jewish Community Center at 3506 Gwynnbrook Avenue in Owings Mills, the 20,000-square-foot Gordon Center has a buff-colored brick exterior that matches the rest of the 1977 complex and a rounded marquee that marks its separate entrance.

With its unornamented geometry and large, glass-enclosed lobby, the exterior is likely to remind some patrons of the Lyric Opera House, whose 1982 expansion was also designed by RCG. The Gordon's lobby, part of which doubles as an art gallery, has an abstract modern quality that recalls the Lyric, too. But this is no Lyric Lite.

At the heart of the Gordon is a 500-seat performing hall, with a modified thrust stage and related support facilities. For certain performances, seating can be increased to 548 seats. The three factors that leave it so well-poised for success are its size, its setting and the built-in accouterments that make it so versatile.

Unlike a hall with 2,500 seats, the Gordon is built on an intimate scale. The stage is 35 feet by 70 feet -- the same size as the Lyric's, and large enough for a 60-piece symphony orchestra. But the Gordon has only one-fourth as many seats as the Lyric -- 16 rows in all, two-thirds of which are less than 50 feet from the stage. With the floor of the hall gently sloped for unobstructed sightlines, there's not a bad seat in the house, and it's all barrier-free.

Because the Gordon Center was added to an existing facility, builders didn't have to construct as much ancillary space as they would with a freestanding building, and funds could be concentrated on the hall itself. A second phase has been designed to provide extra rehearsal space and dressing rooms, when funds become available. But from the outset, designers took full advantage of the center's link to the Jewish Community Center to provide back-of-the-house space for performers, including classrooms that double as rehearsal space and a multipurpose room that can be a reception area. Performers will even be able to use the center's pool.

Money saved by linking the performing hall to the community center was used to build features that make the Gordon among the most acoustically flexible facilities of its size in the country. Acoustical baffles and ceiling "clouds," a movable acoustic shell and motorized curtains can be used to adjust the hall for a wide range of performing conditions.

In addition, the center has a 650-square-foot orchestra pit that accommodates 45 musicians. A hydraulic lift allows the pit to be raised from basement level to the floor of the hall, increasing its capacity, or to stage level, to extend the performing space. All these built-in features shorten the time needed to "tune" the hall and reduce the need for a large stage crew, reducing the cost of tickets.

Howard Downing, principal-in-charge of the project for RCG, said the configurations may range from a single speaker before a closed curtain to a full orchestra with an acoustic shell for a backdrop.

"There are some people who say you can't build a multipurpose hall without compromising one kind of performance or another," Mr. Downing said. "We say it is possible, and this is the proof. Lighting. Acoustics. Sightlines. This hall can handle anything from the very small to the very large. The whole idea here is that no matter what you're doing, there is no compromise."

What sets the Gordon apart is that it has so many features designed to increase acoustic flexibility, even though it has so few seats. And because it's so intimate, it doesn't have the sightline problems of larger halls.

"To have this intimate a house, but this capable a stage -- there's nowhere else in Maryland where you can find that combination," said Mark Quackenbush, the center's technical director.

"The sound quality for an orchestra is every bit as good as it is in a hall designed exclusively for orchestras, but we have the added ability to present movies and music and dance. We can change from a theater with curtains and scenery to a concert hall with an acoustical shell in three hours. . . . Around the country, you can count on the fingers of two hands the number of theaters where the sightlines and acoustics are this fantastic."

Creature comforts

As audiences will discover starting tonight, the hall is as attractive and comfortable as it is technologically advanced, yet it's also sedate enough that its appearance will not draw attention from what happens onstage.

The space is relatively shallow, with rows of seats that follow the gentle curve of the thrust stage and bring the audience as close to the performers as possible. Colors add an aura of warmth and quiet luxury: burgundy seats and deep purple walls, stained pine floors on the stage and oak woodwork elsewhere in the hall.

Assembly Places International of Philadelphia was the theatrical consultant; James Posey Associates, the mechanical and electrical engineer; and LPJ Inc., the civil and structural engineer. Kroll Construction was the general contractor. Solving the acoustical issues was the job of Klepper Marshall King of White Plains, N.Y., a nationally prominent acoustical consultant.

RCG came to the Gordon Center with extensive experience in theater design, including three performing halls at Frostburg State University, one at Cecil Community College and the 1982 restoration of the Lyric. While with another firm, Mr. Downing was also responsible for the restoration of the Peabody Conservatory's Miriam A. Friedberg Hall.

At the Lyric, RCG sparked controversy by remodeling the orchestra level to feature "continental seating," with no center aisles to let patrons out quickly in case of an emergency. But at the Gordon, the architects opted for a center aisle after consulting with the client.

"We had long discussions about it," said Mr. Downing, who was not with RCG when the Lyric renovation was planned. "We could have gotten in a few more seats, and they would have been good seats. But the owner wanted a center aisle, and we agreed. There will be quite a few elderly patrons, and, psychologically, they get bothered by the idea of being in a long row of seats without a break. The center aisle gives them a certain comfort level."

The designers also provided comfortable seats with generous knee room between rows -- 38 inches from the edge of one seat to the back of the one in front. One hard-to-miss feature is the series of metal rails at the ends of each aisle, a requirement of the county's life safety code, but RCG tried to keep them as unobtrusive as possible.

The lobby continues the rich feel of the performing hall with tones of burgundy and blue. Equipped with its own kitchen, the lobby is spacious enough to accommodate the entire audience at a reception before or after performances. The restrooms have many more toilets than the building code required, to help keep lines short.

Perhaps the least impressive aspect of the theater is the unprepossessing exterior, with its modest brick and simulated stucco finishes. Mr. Downing explained that RCG originally recommended that the exterior be brick and cast stone, but the stone was "value engineered" out of the project to save money. Given a choice of altering the exterior or the interior to meet the budget, he said, he strove to keep the interior intact at all costs. That's a telling sign of the priorities that guided the design team.

"All of the money is inside the hall," Mr. Downing said. "The shell of the building is simply the enclosure of the hall. Instead of

fancy finishes on the outside, the money was put toward the accouterments and the sightlines, to make them as fine as possible."

Given the tight budget, the architects may have been fortunate this project was located where it is, rather than a more prominent corridor in the city. Because it was privately funded, it was never held up as a civic symbol of the area's "cultural renaissance," the way a new performing arts center might be on Mayor Kurt Schmoke's "Avenue of the Arts."

Freed of the obligation to make a design statement with a capital D, the architects could focus their attention on the all-important performing space inside, and that's what they did. They delivered the building for a construction cost of $180 per square foot, a remarkably low figure considering all that it includes.

"Where we did not reduce costs were the things that make the hall function excellently, such as lighting and acoustics," Mr. Downing said. "You could spend a lot more money on finishes than we did, but in terms of technological capability, we have not compromised. We worked hard to spend every dime wisely. There's very little fluff."

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