$7.5M Town Hall Theater expansion plan, plaza take shape
MIDDLEBURY — Town Hall Theater officials on Tuesday raised the curtain on an ambitious expansion of the historic building at 68 South Pleasant St., a $7.5 million project that will boost THT facilities and transform it into a regional performing arts center.
Tuesday’s informational meeting drew around 80 people to THT’s main stage, and they were treated to a variety of images showing how the 7,000-square-foot, three-story addition will look once its completed. The addition will be built onto the southwest end of THT, extending onto an adjacent parcel currently occupied by the former Diner restaurant. The THT board acquired The Diner parcel in 2018, with the idea that THT would eventually expand to satisfy the public’s growing appetite for local visual and performing arts offerings.
Lisa Mitchell and Doug Anderson, executive director and artistic director of THT, respectively, noted the building currently hosts 160 events per year but sadly (due to space limitations) must reject 80% of the requests it receives for use of the facility.
In short: There is a lot of demand for limited space.
“We lack certain things that every theater has,” Anderson said, specifically citing a rehearsal room, a set-building space and an arts-education spot. Since THT currently doesn’t have designated areas for those three activities, they must be done within the building’s performance area. And that requires THT to be closed for roughly 30% of the year, Anderson lamented.
He explained that spaces used for scene construction, rehearsal and educational programming aren’t only utilitarian, they’re much-needed revenue generators for a nonprofit arts organizations.
“You can imagine that when any business that has to be closed 30% of the year, it’s hard to make it work financially,” Anderson said.
The former Diner property is now being enlisted to help solve THT’s dilemma. Plans call for the old restaurant building to be removed — perhaps as soon as this August — to make way for the new addition. Plans shown on Tuesday show a three-story annex that will be attached to the THT’s small administrative-offices addition that was completed in 2008.
Like the 1884 THT building, the annex will have a stone base and primarily a brick façade. The façade will enclose a newly created plaza that will bear slate cladding.
The first floor of the annex will house the scene shop, the second will host educational programming, and the top floor will be rehearsal space.
Images provided by project contractor Bread Loaf Corp. show an annex festooned with many large windows that’ll bathe users in natural light, afford what Anderson called “glorious” views of the downtown and give passersby a glimpse of what’s going on inside.
Having a three-story structure will minimize the footprint of the building and “makes it as small and modest a building as possible for putting into this historic streetscape,” according to Anderson.
Bread Loaf Architect Jim Pulver noted the annex will be built into what is a rather tricky Diner lot, which slopes down toward the river.
“The building steps down over that very steep site,” he said. “We have some significant constraints down there, a major sewer line and a major power line. So we’re not able to build all the way out to the back edge of the property, but we’re right up against the right of way for the power line. We’ve used all of the site that we possibly can.”
Corbeling will be incorporated at the top of the addition, an architectural flourish found in other downtown buildings, according to Pulver. A “corbel” is defined as an architectural element that projects from within a wall and supports a weight.
“We’re looking at the 2008 addition as setting the vocabulary for continuing on, and melding, the two buildings together — the annex with the existing THT,” he said. “So we’re looking at shingles, sloping slate roofs and large windows.”
The new annex will also be endowed with restrooms, a lobby, kitchen, upper-lobby/lounge and a freight elevator that will transport people as well as set pieces that come out of the new scene shop.
A NEW PLAZA
Project organizers are excited about what will go inside the annex, and they’re just as enthused about what will be created outside the new addition: A new “Maloney Plaza,” named for longtime THT boosters Barbara and Dennis Maloney.
It’s an elliptical outdoor space located at the doorstep of the new THT campus. It will feature overhead lighting, moveable furnishings and a segmented, circular stage for outdoor performances.
Mitchell said the expanded THT and its Maloney Plaza will add to an emerging downtown arts and culture corridor that includes Merchants Row, Edgewater Gallery and the recently enlarged Triangle Park, which is hosting a series of weekly outdoor markets through the summer and early fall.
More activity at an enlarged THT will help fuel the local economy, as many patrons typically combine a show with a restaurant meal, overnight lodging and/or visits to local stores, Mitchell noted. And a newly fortified THT could double as the local convention center that Addison County economic development officials have been lobbying for, THT leaders said.
Another beneficiary of the THT project — from an aesthetic standpoint — will be the Grace Baptist Church at 52 Merchants Row. Removal of the former Diner building will suddenly expose a façade of the neighboring church that’s been hidden for many decades. Anderson said THT will help refurbish that façade as a good-neighbor gesture.
“The church is going to be standing tall, in a new way,” he said.
Plans also call for celebrating Steve and Beth Dow, who for many years owned and operated Steve’s Park Diner at the expansion site.
Anderson and his colleagues are hoping construction can begin this October, with building work expected to last a year. In the meantime, Bread Loaf will refine project designs and THT boosters will continue to raise funds. Thanks to grants and some very generous donors, THT has raised $4.8 million toward its $7.5 million goal. That leaves $2.74 million more to raise.
THT officials said they’ve tried to keep the project costs down. For example, some boosters had suggested a deck to crown the annex roof. But this would have required two separate stairways and an expanded elevator shaft, among other things.
“It was an incredible cost,” Anderson said, but added he believes patrons will be content with the balconies that will adorn the second and third floors of the annex.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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