Living Theater

Campus planners in urban locations face limitations on a daily basis, most often tied to lack of open space. Likewise, colleges and universities in all types of environments are constantly striving to identify new ways to maximize available space while enhancing academic resources. One solution is to create residential facilities that harbor a defined learning track, such as the performing arts.

The combination of student housing and the performing arts offers participants a unique living experience, one that truly fosters a bond among program participants. In addition, the sense of community and pride that comes from living in a campus structure that hosts live performances, recitals, and community events can breathe new life into older facilities. Take, for example, Emerson College’s Paramount Center in Boston: what was once the mothballed and historic Paramount Theatre has been reborn as a modern performing arts facility that also houses students for the liberal arts institution.

A World-Class Program

In 2004, Emerson College began the Paramount Center project, a 180,000-sq.-ft. mixed-use development of new and renovated construction consisting of the existing and historic art deco-style Paramount Theatre, and a new building constructed on the site of the former Arcade Building on Washington Street in downtown Boston. Originally built in 1932 as a 1,657-seat movie house that subsequently closed its doors in 1976, the Paramount Theatre was renovated and reconfigured into a 590-seat live performance venue. Historic finishes were restored, and the art deco architectural features from the original were repurposed, such as a beautifully painted rococo “fan” that once permitted organ music to waft into the movie house that now functions as an acoustical reflector above the forestage. The new theater serves students and faculty at Emerson College as well as the larger Boston community.

The Paramount Center’s other program elements include a 180-seat film screening room, a black box theater with an audience capacity of 200, a soundstage, a scene/prop shop, rehearsal studios, practice rooms, classrooms, and faculty offices; 60,000 sq. ft. of new dormitory space for housing 262 students fill the upper four floors of the nine-story complex. The dormitory primarily offers double rooms in four- or six-person suites with shared bathrooms. Some standalone doubles are also available in the Paramount, and residents share common floor lounges with kitchenettes and a centralized laundry facility.

The building program also includes new space for a 150-seat tenant restaurant on Washington Street, and a dedicated student cafeteria on the lower level. 

The Best of Both Worlds

Considered a historically informed renovation, not an actual restoration, the project’s designers, Elkus Manfredi Architects, and the acoustical consultant, Acentech, approached the project to preserve its authenticity while making it as functional as possible for performers, students, and faculty. Though the original Paramount was a large art deco film and vaudeville venue, the architects scaled down the theatre to 590 seats so as to create a larger stage and orchestra pit and accommodate modern theatrical systems and infrastructure.

In order to make a project with such a varied program work, the acoustical design of the entire facility was carefully considered to provide all users — from performers on stage to students sleeping and learning in their dorm rooms — with an adequate level of sound isolation. On a typical campus, facilities such as residence halls, performance spaces, classrooms, and faculty offices would be in separate buildings, with no acoustical interplay between the spaces. For the urban Paramount Center, all the program elements are tightly stacked — the black box theatre sits directly underneath the film screening room, which is directly next to the soundstage with a restaurant beneath it. With student housing capping off the building, livable acoustics were the biggest design challenge of the project. Members of the design and consulting teams worked together to devise clever ways of maintaining acoustical isolation between floors and rooms, adding concrete floating-slab floors, drop ceilings, and double wall construction where appropriate.

In order to create a facility that supported Emerson’s programming, the choices in interior finishes and design of the various support spaces reflect a desire to balance function and form. The newer spaces created in the Center reflect a minimalist perspective that is also contemporary in design, whereas the older spaces incorporate murals, handcrafted scrolling, and geometric patterning, among other features that acknowledge the history of the site. Other details, such as the seating and box office, retain familiar art deco elements.

A Landmark Performance

The Paramount Center is destined to help Emerson College enhance and support its academic specialties in communication and the arts. Emerson’s mission is to give students the tools necessary to compete in the highly competitive cultural environment as actors, technicians, or administrators. The Paramount Center is a destination for students seeking this expert training.

“The opening of the Paramount Center complex marks the completion of our Boston residential campus, offering students a unique living, learning, and performing venue in the heart of the Theater District,” says John Walden, senior construction manager at Emerson College. “This new facility provides Emerson College students, and the Boston arts community at large, with a new and vibrant performance space of which we should all be proud.”

Emerson College’s construction of the Paramount Center, as well as several other new and renovated housing projects in the neighborhood, has been celebrated by City of Boston officials for inspiring redevelopment and breathing new life into the once-forgotten Theatre District. Students now patronize restaurants and retail shops, and the Paramount attracts world-class performers that are enjoyed by faithful audiences. With the Paramount Center alive with activity, Emerson has re-energized this part of downtown Boston.

The Paramount Center has been honored with multiple awards, including the Boston Society of Architects 2010 Honor Award for Design Excellence, the American Institute of Architects New England Chapter 2010 Design Award, the Boston Preservation Alliance’s 2010 Preservation Achievement Award, and the International Facility Management Association Boston Chapter’s 2010 Award of Excellence. A recent honor includes the 2011 Architecture Merit Award of the U.S. Institute for Theatre Technology, given for the project team’s ability to blend high-tech theater technology into the restored structure.

Today, the Paramount Center is the centerpiece of Emerson College that simultaneously engages the 4,000 students of Emerson as well as faculty, administrators, and theatre companies. A world-class performance venue in the heart of Boston’s Theatre District, Emerson College’s newest building is also a vibrant place where students eat, sleep, and breathe the performing arts. 

Robert Berens is a supervisory consultant at Acentech Inc., a multi-disciplinary acoustics, audiovisual systems design, and vibration consulting firm providing a wide range of services to a diverse group of clients.

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