Historic performance space is transformed to bolster a campus arts district

Palmer Auditorium, on the campus of Connecticut College in New London, is an Art Deco theater designed by William F. Lamb in 1939, who also designed the Empire State Building in New York. The theater has a long history of hosting acclaimed artists, musicians and performers, from Dizzy Gillespie to Yo-Yo Ma.

This spring, the 38,500-square-foot building ushered in a new era, thanks to its new name — the Athey Center for Performance and Research at Palmer Auditorium — and a $23 million renovation by a team including the firm of Ennead Architects, who modernized the facility. to support teaching, learning and performance across a range of disciplines.

The project dates back to 2018 and took 24 months to build. It was completed in April and included a new entrance, renewal of the facade and interior renovation of the auditorium, halls, lounges, costume and workshop, as well as teaching, administrative and Support.

“A lot of things needed to be improved,” says Brian Masuda, associate director at Ennead Architects, who BD+C interviewed with firm partner Molly McGowan. Prior to the renovation, the auditorium clerestories had been boarded up and the building, Masuda says, “was very dark and sort of cut off from the rest of the campus.” It was therefore imperative to bring more natural light into the building, including on its historic wooden staircases which have been preserved and restored.

Natural light flows through skylights that were opened during the renovation.

The renovation opened up three sides of the building with glass facades and feature walls. On the historic side of the building, the team replaced the deteriorated spandrels with cast glass light boxes. And where appropriate, transparent materials were used. Inside, the hall window overlooks the studio. And the theater department, which had been dispersed throughout the building, was consolidated into one wing.

McGowan says the renovation “acknowledges the building’s history” while making what is now part of the college’s theater department more modern. The challenge, says Masuda, was to blend the old with the new, from reinstalling the lobby lighting pendants to adding modern furniture and new carpeting with an Art Deco-style herringbone pattern.


Building lobby features new furniture and large windows
The building’s renovated lobby features modern furnishings and cast-glass windows.

Approximately 500 usable square feet were added to the building during the renovation. By making small adjustments to building plans within the existing footprint, Ennead created a new lounge and ticket office with an expanded public lobby. The two-level hall spaces have been redesigned to serve as informal teaching and study spaces. Two key elements were introduced to the main level lobby: a highly visible entrance to the theater department’s administrative suite and a visual connection to the newly created teaching studio.

Auditorium seating now offers Americans with Disabilities Act compliant access, along with improved sight lines, better acoustics, new condition, and visual technology upgrades.

“The renovations have resulted in a magnificent transformation that promises to make Center Athey a destination for the region and an inspiration to future generations of student performers ready to make a difference with their art,” said Connecticut President. College, Katherine Bergeron.

The construction team for this project included AV Corp (GC), Altieri (ME), Silman (SE) and Next Stage (theatrical consultant).