In Lowell, Massachusetts, a Historic Facade Now Conceals a Modern Theater

As part of a $20 million gut renovation, Leers Weinzapfel Associates inserted a 20,000-square-foot egg-shaped theater into this 1876 building.
Richard Nancy Donahue theater design

In Lowell, Massachusetts, Leers Weinzapfel Associates inserted an egg-shaped theater into a 19th-century building. “You walk in and see the egg immediately. It’s an architectural move, but it’s also a structural and metaphorical move,” says principal Josiah Stevenson, alluding to the formerly industrial town’s regeneration. Courtesy Robert Benson

Which came first: the cornice or the egg? Leers Weinzapfel Associates grappled with this question recently when inserting a 20,000-square-foot egg-shaped theater into an 1876 building in Lowell, Massachusetts, the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution and an hour outside Boston. The landmark building, formerly home to a train station and, later, to the Rialto Theater, is now the Richard and Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center, a performance space at Middlesex Community College. The $20 million gut renovation—which installed a modern proscenium, dance studios, and a recital hall—retained just three original load-bearing walls, secured with columns and buttresses during construction. The oval base of the egg sits on a new floorplate, which has been placed into the shell of the old building. (The base is made from reinforced-concrete masonry units clad in wooden panels.) Upstairs, the architects created an ambulatory surrounding the theater volume, with two-foot color-changing LED lights following the curve for an even glow. The ovumlike structure now stands without columns and seats roughly 200.

Throughout the renovation, the team sought to maximize space and clearly differentiate between the building’s Romanesque Revival–style exterior and its modern interior, removing decayed inner components in favor of an open floor plan and sleek lines—“something beautiful inside a nice container,” as Josiah Stevenson, the project lead and a principal at Leers Weinzapfel, puts it. “The container is from 1876, and our egg is from 2018. It’s a juxtaposition of time, but also form.” Stevenson says the egg also represents the rejuvenation of Lowell’s historic downtown, which has twice fallen on hard times: first at the beginning of the 20th century and later when Wang Laboratories, former archrival to IBM, shuttered in 1997. It seems this “jewel box with a little geode inside” is not just an architectural feat but may also hatch the promise of rebirth for this postindustrial city.

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Categories: Architecture, Cultural Architecture, Preservation