Building Blueprints

Setting the Stage for Success

Extensive Renovation Adds State-of-the-Art Theater to Massachusetts School

The mission statement at Middlesex School in Massachusetts has remained consistent since the school’s founding in 1901. The primary objective stated by Frederick Winsor, the school’s founder, is to “find the promise that lies hidden” in every student. “That message of individuality, hope and possibility guides us today,” the school says on its website.

A recently renovated and expanded theater and visual arts center will help the school deliver on that mission. Last year, the school unveiled the new Bass Arts Pavilion and Danoff Visual Arts Center. At the center of the Bass Arts Pavilion lies the Kaye Main Stage Theatre, where seating capacity was expanded by about 100 seats to 495. The theater includes a balcony and will allow the entire student body, teachers and administrators to fit comfortably as an audience for performances, guest speakers and school assemblies.

theater renovation

Photo by Sarah Hamlin/Everchangingphoto

The project includes six double-leaf acoustical smoke vents manufactured by The BILCO Company.

“We won’t have to create special places for musicians on stage any more or remove seats from the audience for them,” said Steve McKeown, Middlesex School’s project manager.

Commitment to the Arts

Middlesex has a wealth of academic, recreational and social outlets for its body of approximately 400 students. How many high schools, for instance, include a dock where students can grab rays or a largemouth bass?

The arts, however, are strongly rooted in Middlesex’s history and its academic plan. Its list of graduates includes Instagram founder Kevin Systrom, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Conrad Aiken, and a host of well-known actors such as Steve Carell, Jessica Tuck and William Hurt.

“There’s a commitment to theater and the arts,” McKeown said. “It’s not any different than our commitment to clubs, sciences or athletics. We provide spaces for students who are interested in a variety of things. Some students may be interested in ceramics, so we have a space for that. Or visual arts, drawing, painting or digital arts. There’s a lot of cool opportunities for students to find their promise.”

The theater is also “the linchpin” for the campus, according to Michelle Oishi, the lead architect on the project for CBT Architects. “It’s the continuation of the academic ribbon.”

Oishi and her team faced multiple challenges in designing the new theater and arts center. They needed to install a long list of new features desired by the school, but also faced environmental constraints, an inability to expand the existing footprint and were required to preserve the theater’s original perimeter walls and roof structure. It was an ambitious and comprehensive project, but also long overdue. The theater had not been updated since the 1960s.

“Students will enjoy the upgrade that modernity requires,” said Kathy Giles, the former Head of School. “We designed these buildings to provide our students with great, well-lit space and now the facilities’ features reflect the sophistication and excellence of the work that’s being done there.”

State of the Art

In the renovation, the construction team from W.E. Floyd completely revamped the theater. They created a new central stage that includes updated theatrical lighting, sound, and a motorized orchestra pit that can be raised up to the stage level.

They also built a smaller studio theater, dressing rooms and set-building support spaces that add capacity to the performing arts program. There are also brightly lit dressing rooms and dedicated space for hair and makeup for the cast. The new state-of-the-art resources add a dimension to the theatre program that few other schools can match.

“I will teach in the studio theatre,” said Tom Kane, Director of the Theater Program. “It will also provide an alternate rehearsal space while the technical crew works on the main stage sets.

The renovated building also features gallery space and pinup areas as new arenas to celebrate and encourage the artistic pursuits of students. There is also a new “mindfulness” space that will provide “emotional and intellectual space to reflect and recharge,” according to the architect. Workers also improved a courtyard to provide accessible entry to adjacent buildings and includes a terrace that serves as an exterior performance venue.

Middlesex students will find dedicated spaces for ceramics, digital photography and digital media, along with two studios for drawing and painting. The work will be featured in the Ishibashi Gallery, which is named after an alumnus of the school. “You really need a space that artists are drawn to exhibit their work, where it is protected and can be showcased in a way that is exciting,” said Stacey McCarthy, head of the Visual Arts Department.

On the upper floor of the visual arts center are two art history rooms and a multipurpose space that the school claims is the “Best Room on Campus,” according to the Middlesex website. It offers views of the campus circle, chapel and the adjacent studio overlooks Bateman’s Pond – and the largemouth bass that inhabit it.

Keeping the Space Safe

Six double-leaf acoustical smoke vents manufactured by The BILCO Company were installed on the roof of the new theater. Automatic smoke vents protect property and aid firefighters in bringing a fire under control by removing smoke, heat and gases from a burning building. This ensures better visibility, evacuation time, and protection against fire spread, as well as reduced risk of smoke inhalation and structural damage. They are activated upon the melting of a fusible link, and are ideally suited for large expanses of unobstructed space such as factories, warehouses, auditoriums and retail facilities.

theater renovation

Photo by Sarah Hamlin/Everchangingphoto

The vents were equipped with electric motors that allow them to be opened and closed remotely for ventilation.

The smoke vents used on this project were equipped with electric motor operators that allow them to be opened and closed remotely for ventilation. BILCO’s acoustical vents provide industry-high STC and OITC sound ratings to guard against outside noise intrusion so that the inside performance won’t be disturbed.

“The features that were included in the smoke vents were geared to student safety,” Oishi said. “That was of paramount importance. There were also space considerations, and the automated aspect was important due to the fact that we wanted very few things interfering with the rigging sets.”

Bringing the School Together

The project required approximately 18 months to complete, and students and faculty reacted excitedly upon completion. “Construction’s exciting, but it can be a slight burden,” McKeown said. “Their reactions when they saw it finally completed were pretty cool. For a long time, it was just something that was going on behind a fence. They were shocked at how amazing the space was.”

While the theater and arts center are critical to the school academically, they are just as essential as the singular place where the entire campus can congregate. Like many small schools, there is a togetherness at Middlesex that makes it special. Certainly, there is a diversity of thought, interests and ideas. The new building provides the necessary space to unite everyone, from the first-year freshmen on up through the school’s brain trust.

theater renovation

Photo by Sarah Hamlin/Everchangingphoto

“It’s an awesome space,” McKeown said. “The entire community gathers there on a weekly basis, and it’s very comfortable. It provides a space where our community can gather, and that’s something that is very important to our school.”

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Spaces4Learning.