Because of both its age and its significance as a presidential memorial, the Kennedy Center epitomizes the “new historic theater.”

© Ron Blunt Photography

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, rapidly increasing numbers of existing buildings built after World War II are passing the 50-year mark and becoming “historic.” Among the many building types falling into this category are movie theaters, auditoriums, and performing arts centers. While highly ornamented vaudeville theaters and Depression-era movie palaces may be what we have come to think of as the historic theater, the sleek modern era aesthetic typifies the “new historic theater”. 
 
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, originally designed by Edward Durell Stone, opened in September 1971 as a living memorial to President Kennedy and as our national performing arts center. In 1994, driven by ADA, the Kennedy Center embarked on a series of major renovations of its principal venues: the Concert Hall in 1997, the Opera House in 2003, and the Eisenhower Theater in 2008. (Quinn Evans Architects led the design efforts for all three of these major renovations.) Because of both its age and its significance as a presidential memorial, the Kennedy Center epitomizes the “new historic theater.” These three theaters demonstrate the challenges and different approaches that can be taken in renovating the new historic theater. 
 
Post-war theaters share many of the project challenges encountered with older theaters, such as providing universal access and overcoming small seat sizes, outdated technical theater and A/V systems and, often, problematic acoustics. Some challenges, however, are different. The sleeker modern-era designs used new building techniques and materials, often experimental, that sometimes did not survive the test of time. The Kennedy Center’s exterior cladding is made of concrete poured directly onto marble veneer to form large panels. This novel approach has not performed well over time, and the Kennedy Center has had to undergo substantial repairs to the exterior marble over the years. 
 
In older historic theaters, room acoustics may result from the use of “rules of thumb” for theater design. Sound isolation from exterior noise sources is often a major problem, and mechanical noise from outdated or undersized mechanical systems present additional acoustical challenges. The acoustics of post-war theaters were often designed scientifically by professional acousticians and implemented with highly technical means. However, many of these acoustic designs were experimental, producing less than ideal results. While the original acoustician for the Kennedy Center, Cyrill Harris, used a sophisticated and successful structural-acoustic scheme to isolate the performance spaces both from each other and from the outside (primarily aircraft noise), the room acoustics for both the Concert Hall and the Eisenhower Theater were problematic. Improving the room acoustics of each of those spaces was a significant goal. In the Concert Hall, the stage platform was completely reconfigured to improve reverberation time and eliminate echoes and dead spots on stage. In the Eisenhower, the forestage area and proscenium were also reshaped. With the Opera House, the goal was to preserve its already excellent acoustical qualities. 
 
It has been said that the most character-defining aspect of modern buildings is that they must look “new.” This notion presents opportunities as well as technical challenges in renovating the new historic theater. The renovations at the Kennedy Center represent three possible attitudes toward preserving modern era aesthetics: a traditional historic preservation approach for the Opera House, the iconic centerpiece of the Kennedy Center; modification and enhancement of the original aesthetic of the Concert Hall, where the acoustical improvements provided an opportunity to introduce wood paneling and a warmer color scheme; and complete transformation of the Eisenhower, where the original dark wood paneling and gloomy lighting had always made the venue feel inferior to the other theaters. 
 
Integration of technical systems requires skill—the modern aesthetic can make it more difficult than in a highly ornamented environment both to meet functional needs and to hide technical features in plain sight. In the Eisenhower, for example, the original design used light slots to hide the box booms to maintain a clean look. Unfortunately, the booms were so well-hidden that they couldn’t see the stage.  
 
Over the years, outrigger pipes were added for several lighting positions resulting in a mess of electrical equipment. In redesigning the Eisenhower, the approach was to incorporate these technical features into the architecture in a way that placed the lights properly out in the space, but to craft a unified vocabulary that harmonizes the performance lighting, architectural lighting, handrails, and decorative trim. While the space was transformed, it can be said that the spirit of the modern aesthetic was not only maintained, but enhanced. 
 
This article originally appeared in the League of Historic American Theatres' inLEAGUE magazine.

The renovations at the Kennedy Center represent three possible attitudes toward preserving modern era aesthetics: a traditional historic preservation approach for the Opera House; modification and enhancement of the original aesthetic of the Concert Hall; and complete transformation of the Eisenhower.

Concert Hall © EstoOpera House © Ron Blunt PhotographyEisenhower Theater © Ron Blunt Photography