By Anne Cosgrove
Published in the January 2006 issue of Facility Executive
If music soothes the soul, then the Music Center at Strathmorefulfills its purpose. Conceived in 1996 as a public-privatepartnership, this state-of-the-art facility operated by Strathmore HallFoundation, Inc. features a 1,976-seat concert hall and an educationcenter for budding performing artists.
Located in North Bethesda, MD just outside Washington, DC, theMusic Center is the second home for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and also a home to Strathmore presentations. There are also fiveresident partner organizations: Levine School of Music, National Philharmonic, Washington Performing Arts Society, CityDance Ensemble,and Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras. As a result, the facility offersa smorgasbord of musical events for the million residents of MontgomeryCounty as well as many visitors.
That is not to say that the area was lacking musical culture beforethe Music Center opened on February 5, 2005. Just across the lawn ofthe 11-acre site where the facility stands is the Mansion atStrathmore, a 100-year-old Georgian Style structure, which has servedas the county’s center for the arts since 1983.
Constructing the Music Center on a grand scale was quite anundertaking, but securing capital funding from partners early onallowed the project to come to fruition. “Since 1985, it had been thewish of our president and CEO, Eliot Pfanstiehl, to have a largerperforming facility than one with 100 seats [in the mansion],” saysMark Grabowski, executive vice president of operations at Strathmore.(Grabowski originally joined the project as a consultant in 1999.) Thatwish was granted one afternoon in 1996 when “Strathmore had contractedwith the BSO to perform a free concert on our front lawn,” Grabowskiexplains. “Both organizations’ presidents—John Gidwitz, then presidentof the BSO and Eliot Pfanstiehl—started talking, and both had a desireto establish a musical presence in Montgomery County.”
“Early on, the BSO partnered with Strathmore Foundation andcommitted to make this its second home,” says Clifford Gayley, AIA,associate principal of William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc. inBoston, MA, the firm in charge of the project. “That was an importantanchor for a facility like this.”
Grabowski adds, “That decision was made at the very beginning, evenbefore we sat down to put a plan on paper. Because the BSO isrecognized as a State of Maryland asset, it enabled us to approach thestate legislature for more capital funding.”
From there, the wheels were in motion. Montgomery County, the Stateof Maryland, and Strathmore Hall Foundation—along with corporate andindividual donors—co-funded the project. Design commenced in June 1999as William Rawn Associates Architects, Inc. along with associatearchitect Grimm + Parker Architects of Bethesda, MD were hired todesign what was to be a centerpiece for the county’s culturallandscape.
Plans for the Music Center included an education center providingrehearsal space and practice rooms for the Maryland Classic YouthOrchestras, City Dance, and the Levine School of Music. The 30,000square foot education wing features four rehearsal spaces, including adance studio with a sprung floor and two rehearsal rooms with 40′ highceilings. The wing also contains a children’s music classroom, anelectronic music lab, a small two-story rehearsal room, and nine soloand small group practice spaces.
The education wing was integral to the concept of the Music Centerat Strathmore. “From the very start, this project was about both [theconcert hall and the education],” recalls Gayley. “It was not about aconcert hall with something else grafted on. The relationship betweenthese two uses was important, not only in terms of back of houseadjacencies that would allow for efficiency but also from a front ofhouse perspective. Both the concert hall and the education wing havetheir front doors on the promenade. You come in the lobby and lookright, and you see the education wing; you look left, and you can headto the concert hall. There’s a sense that they really are part of onestructure.
“Eliot Pfanstiehl has spoken glowingly about the opportunitiesimplicit in this juxtaposition for world class performers to strollthrough the west-facing promenade and visit kids who are learning thecraft,” Gayley continues. “So, from a design point of view, the twowere there from the start.”
Treading Lightly On The Site
The site itself played a part in the design process. “The site isvery special,” says Gayley. “This gem of a mansion sits on a hill alongRockville Pike, which is a highly commercial strip. The Music Center,in its park setting, is a respite from the commercial activity alongthe Pike.”
The design of the building itself took into account the pastoralquality and sloping characteristic of the Strathmore property. “Therewas a desire to preserve the green space,” explains Gayley. “Also, thefacility, at nearly 200,000 square feet, would dwarf not only themansion but the hill that it sits on if it were to sit on top of thehill. So the decision was to take advantage of the site, which slopesaway from the mansion, and push the concert hall downhill and into theearth.
“The undulating roof line links the building into a single whole,while acknowledging there are two parts of the building,” continuesGayley. “The larger S-curve on the left hand side is the expression ofthe volume of the concert hall, and the smaller curve on the right isover the tall rehearsal spaces at the top of the education wing.”
The 64′ high glass curtainwall fronting the north lobby hints atthe concert hall height. The promenade, another expressivearchitectural feature, links the concert hall area and the educationwing. Additionally, the open expanse of glass not only allows naturallight to flood into the facility on three floor levels, but alsooverlooks the Strathmore site. The curtainwall is framed by a Germanlimestone facade.
The Main Event
While the concert hall and education wing were both integral to thedesign of Music Center, the concert hall represents the passion forperformance inherent in the project. Seating layout, interiorfurnishings, and acoustic precision converged to create a world-classvenue.
Featuring orchestra, promenade, grand tier, and upper tier seatinglevels, the audience and chorus seats wrap the concert platform toembrace the stage and connect to side galleries and balconies.
“Concert halls in general vary both by shape and size,” explainsGayley. “This hall is a modified shoebox shape, as opposed to a fanshape where everyone has a similar view of the stage but only sees thebacks of fellow audience members. Here, the audience not only faces thestage but faces one another from the side balconies and from behind thestage. We designed this to be a facility where the musicians andaudience were in the same space, so there’s a sense of intimacy. For aconcert hall of 2,000 people, achieving that sense of intimacy was areal challenge; to experience it is quite joyful.”
The materials used to furnish the concert hall match the ambitionsof the design. There are maple and red birch wood floors, custom redbirch paneling, bronze architectural mesh wall panels, alabaster artglass light fixtures, and seats of maple wood and aubergine velour.
Grabowski explains, “Our landlord, Montgomery County, MD, selecteda general contractor, Clark Construction Group, LLC, who wasresponsible for all capital purchases—the architect, the acoustician,and the designers did all the specifications—but the general contractordid the actual bidding and purchasing for the actual structure. As itscommitment to the project, Strathmore Foundation funded furniture,fixture, and equipment purchases of $5 million. We purchased the officefurniture, the box seats in the concert hall, the sound system—anythingthat was ‘movable,’ I took care of that aspect.”
For other items for which no specs were provided, Grabowski madethe decisions. For instance, he led procurement for furnishings for theadministrative offices and other back of house locations.
About 60% of the Strathmore Foundation staff moved their offices tothe new facility, occupying 4,500 square feet. The rest of the staffcontinues to work in the mansion. Additionally, the resident partnerorganizations maintain offices in the Music Center.
When the groundbreaking for the building took place on April 11,2001, it was the culmination of years of discussion about how afacility of this stature might be built. Perhaps it was the extendedplanning period that made the construction process a relativelypredictable undertaking.
Gayley recalls, “It was a very typical construction process for abuilding of this type and complexity. The only thing that was slightlydifferent was it was broken into two packages—namely a foundation andsite package and then the building. And that was due to the very steepslope [of the site]. It was determined advantageous to get thefoundation and the site retention aspects done quickly and ahead of theother phase.”
However, it wasn’t all business as usual, since the concert hallrequired ideal acoustics. This was a prime factor in the design andconstruction, which led to special considerations throughout thestructure.
Gayley says, “The acoustic imperative for the hall was very high.The challenge was nothing short of a world-class facility, and inhiring the team that designed Ozawa Hall [the concert hall designed forthe Boston Symphony Orchestra by William Rawn Associates, Architects,Inc.], the owner made clear it wanted a comparable facility. Ouroffice, along with Kirkegaard Associates, an acoustician located inChicago, IL, and Theatre Projects Consultants, Inc. in South Norwalk,CT, made up the core design team that shaped the hall, its volumes, andthe materials that defined it.
“Tolerances needed to be quite precise,” he continues. “The basichall is a cast-in-place concrete structure—the mass of which was anintegral part of the acoustic volume of the space. The reverberationand the base sounds need to be contained within the space by massivewalls; if the walls are not thick enough and not constructed right, thesound leaks out. The walls, as well as the roof, which is alsoconcrete, were a very important first step.”
While the structure itself was integral to the quality of theperformance experience, so were the building systems installed into thestructure. “For the construction trades, the acoustical and mechanicalsystems were very exacting,” Grabowski explains.
“Mechanically, items that would be one size in any other buildingare easily triple the size in a concert hall,” says Gayley. “The airsound needs to be cut down entirely and needs to move very slowly,which means the volume has to be much bigger in order to deliver acertain amount of air to the space. Ductwork has to be oversizedradically. Coordination of the ductwork from the mechanical space inthe basement, up through the structure, and up into the hall takes alot of coordination.
“Getting from point A to point B within a given space with othertrades present, in addition to structural beams and other objects, wasquite a challenge,” continues Gayley.
In addition to this coordination, the equipment itself requiredspecial attention. “The registers need to be installed in a way thatthey don’t rattle,” cites Gayley as an example.
Grabowski adds, “In dealing with the mechanical systems overall,there’s a tremendous amount of isolation. Anything that could createvibration or sympathetic low end energy [is addressed]. Everything ison shock mounts. Even ducts stop; there’s a piece of rubber so novibration can transmit, then the duct picks up again. Every penetrationwas packed and sealed where sound couldn’t go through a wall whereconduit or pipe was going.
“The actual equipment is pretty standard,” notes Grabowski.“Granted, the equipment is sitting on resilient springs and neoprenepads, but there’s nothing extraordinary about the particularequipment.”
The HVAC system, along with lighting and fire/life safety systems,is monitored by an extensive building automation system (BAS). “We havea Siemens building automation system, which makes the day to dayoperations almost seamless for us,” says Grabowski. “It watches a lotof things a human being would constantly have to be running around thebuilding to check. In the concert hall, we have 12 temperature sensorsin addition to humidity sensors and carbon dioxide sensors. These areconstantly monitoring the space with the variable speed drives whichsupply the air—constantly adjusting temperature as well as air flow tomeet the requirements of the patron but also to keep the concert hallwithin its design curriculum of noise floor, [an acoustician termdetermining how quiet the hall is with everything running, but withoutpeople in it].”
The BAS monitors 600 points in the building—everything from pumps to pressures to water flow.
“The HVAC system takes advantage of all modern energy savingcapabilities using what’s commonly called heat recovery, or heatwheels,” he continues. “It also provides energy capabilities inreference to load shedding. There’s a not a tremendous amount that canbe load shed in a performing concert hall. Normally, the peak use ofelectricity is at the start of intermission when the house lights goup. With a full house, there’s not much to load shed. But, we let thesystem do what it can within the parameters that we allow it.
“The BAS also controls all the architectural lighting of thebuilding—all of the exterior lights and the corridor lights are tiedinto the system. That occurs based on time of day or whether thephotocell on the roof says it’s dark.”
There is a state-of-the-art fire/life safety system in thefacility. In addition to the standard features, Grabowski points out:“The system allows us to determine whether a sensor is getting dirty asopposed to an actual alarm condition. The last thing we want to do isevacuate the house needlessly because a fire sensor is dirty andmalfunctions.”
With so many organizations under one roof, as well as the numerouspatrons that frequent the facility, the security system also demandssome special attention. “For a venue operation, the number one problemwe have is keeping the audience and performers separated,” Grabowskiexplains. “Patrons have a way of finding whatever door is left unlockedto get backstage. We use a card key access system for controlling theentire building—not only exterior doors, but also access to thebackstage spaces as well as to the office spaces. Almost all thenon-public spaces have card key control.
“Our primary resident partners have cards issued to them and thesystem allows us, with one keystroke, to activate or deactivate all thecards for a particular organization. Our security office takes care ofthis aspect.”
A Symphony Of Efforts
While the Music Center is designed to whisk patrons to a relaxingperformance experience, its close proximity to Rockville Pike and masstransit via the area’s Metro rail system serve the facility well. Themass transit aspect is another example of how the public-privatepartnership helped the development of the Music Center. Connected tothe facility by an enclosed walkway over the street, a parking garagebuilt by Montgomery County provides complimentary parking for patrons.
“It was a win-win situation for us,” Grabowski says. “At the time,Montgomery County was planning to build a garage for the Metro acrossthe street. So we didn’t have to take up lawn space for parking. Metroneeds parking in the daytime; we need it evenings and weekends. TheCounty moved the garage closer to our facility and added the pedestrianskybridge.”
In commenting on the overall project, Grabowski says, “I’ve beenmanaging buildings for 30-some years and what makes this one veryspecial is the fact that everyone came together, as well as the passionbehind the project. We had professionals, volunteers, corporate donors,private donors, staff, and other members of the community. We haveseven arts organizations under one roof; now that’s rare. Thecapability of intertwining for synergy and for playing off each other’sstrengths was very uncommon. This is pie in the sky stuff. This isgood.”
Gayley echoes this sentiment, saying, “Implicit in all of this washow the owner and all of the consultants involved during this many yearprocess had a very close working relationship. There are many people wehaven’t mentioned who were absolutely integral to the project. Theprocess was very team oriented and very focused on making it happen.The Strathmore Concert Hall Steering Committee, which included the BSO,was very involved. It was a very powerful process, and I think itplayed a very significant role in getting the building to where it wasand getting it to be as good as it ended up being.”
As the Music Center approaches its first anniversary, it’s clearthat long-term planning and teamwork contributed to the facility’ssuccess. If the performers in the building follow suit, thisentertainment site should be around for years to come.
Project: The Music Center at Strathmore. Location: North Bethesda, MD. Type of Project: New Construction. Function of Facility: Entertainment and Arts Education. Owner: Montgomery County, MD. In House Project Management Team:Eliot Pfanstiehl, president/CEO, Strathmore Hall Foundation, Inc.; MaryK. Donahoe AIA, Project Manager, Montgomery County Division of CapitalDevelopment. Square Footage: 190,000. Funding: Montgomery County, MD; the State of Maryland; Strathmore Hall Foundation, Inc. Construction Timetable: April 2001 through November 2004. Budget: $100 million. Cost: $395/sf. Architect: William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc. with Grimm + Parker Architects (as associate architect). Electrical/Mechanical Engineer: TMP Consulting Engineers. Structural Engineer: Le Messurier Consultants. Civil Engineer: A. Morton Thomas & Associates. Project Management: Tishman Construction Corporation. General Contractor: Clark Construction Group, LLC. Lighting Designer: Fisher Marantz Stone, Inc. Landscape Architect: Louise Schiller Associates. Acoustician: Kirkegaard Associates. Theater Design: Theatre Projects Consultants, Inc.
Furniture: Irwin Seating; Chairmasters; HON Office Furniture; Wenger; David Edwards; Design Within Reach. Wallcoverings: Benjamin Moore Paints; Cambridge Architectural Mesh. Flooring: Aacer Flooring (wood floors); Armstrong; Johnsonite; Dal-Tile. Carpet: Durkan; Mohawk; Shaw. Ceilings: Armstrong (acoustical tile); Chicago Metallic (linear metal). Fabrics/Textiles/Upholstery: J.L. de Ball America, Inc; KM Fabrics; Guilford of Maine; Carnegie. Laminate: Wilsonart. Light Fixtures: Lightolier. Acoustics/Sound Masking: J.R. Clancy. Window Treatments: MechoShade Systems; Hunter Douglas. Storage Equipment: HON Office Furniture. Office Equipment: Dell, Inc.; Kyocera Mita. Security System: Tyco/Kantech. CCTV: Bosch Security Systems. Door Locks: Corbin Russwin. Smart Cards/ID Badging: HID Corporation. Safety Equipment: North American Safety Products, Inc. Fire/Life Safety System: Tyco/SimplexGrinnell. HVAC Equipment: Trane; Smith Boilers; Baltimore Aircoil. Building Management System/Services: Siemens Building Technologies, Inc. Power Supply Equipment: Siemens (switchgear). Roofing: Sarnafil. Lighting Control: Siemens; Strand Lighting; Lutron Electronics, Inc. Ballasts: Lightolier. Exit Signs: Lightolier. Wayfinding Systems: Forms and Surfaces. Telecommunications: Mitel Networks Corporation. Network Equipment/IT Infrastructure: 3Com Corporation. Structured Cabling System: Siemens Building Technologies. Rest Room Equipment/Supplies: Bobrick. Windows/Curtain Walls/Skylights/Glazing: Viracon. Elevators/Escalators: Collins Elevators.