Middlesex School occupies a unique place in the independent school landscape, both in its academic mission and architectural roots. Founded in 1901 by Frederick Winsor Jr., the son of a Civil War surgeon and head of the Massachusetts state hospital, the school’s mission speaks of “finding the promise” in every student with small-school intimacy and big-school opportunity.
The 350-acre campus in Concord, Mass. was designed by John Charles and Frederick L. Olmsted, Jr., who followed in the footsteps of their father, Frederick Law, who is popularly considered to be the father of American landscape architecture. The elder Olmsted’s projects include Central Park in New York, while the sons played an influential role in creating the National Park Service, and they completed numerous high-profile projects including universities, libraries, hospitals and residential neighborhoods.
With its extraordinary history deeply rooted, Middlesex School embarked on a plan in 2017 to renovate a theater that serves as the linchpin to the campus. The existing facility had been built in the 1960s, according to Steve McKeown, the school’s project manager. The objective was to improve the existing theater and to create a space where the entire 400-plus students in grades 9-12 and faculty could assemble.
The architectural team from CBT Architects faced several daunting challenges in the 55,000-square-foot renovation. They included environmental constraints, maintaining the existing footprint and preserving the theater’s original perimeter walls and roof structure, gutting the original building and installing a long list of new features desired by the school. Architects and contractors had to deliver on all of those objectives while adhering to the school’s 21st-century mission and century-old architectural integrity. That is a delicate tight rope to walk for any team.
“The theater is the linchpin for that portion of the campus,” said Michelle Oishi, the lead architect on the project. “It’s the continuation of the academic ribbon.”
The scope of the project was extensive and detailed. It focused on a dramatic re-envisioning of the Middlesex arts program, all while maintaining the existing footprint of the building and preserving the theater’s original perimeter walls and roof structure. The project increased seating capacity in the theater to 495.
“There’s a commitment to theater and the arts,” McKeown said of the school that produced “The Office” star Steve Carell, Academy-award winning actor William Hurt and actress Jessica Tuck, among others. “It’s not any different than our commitment to clubs, arts or athletics. We provide spaces for students who are interested in a variety of things. Some students may be interested in ceramics, so we have a space for that. Or visual arts, drawing, painting or digital arts. There’s a lot of cool opportunities for students to find their promise.”
The centerpiece to the project is the main stage, which now includes balcony seating that allows the entire student body and faculty to fit comfortably as an audience for performances, guest speakers and all-school assemblies. The theater includes a motorized orchestra pit that can be raised up to the stage level. “We won’t have to create a special place for musicians on stage any more or remove seats from the audience for them,” McKeown said.
There is also a 180-seat black box theatre for rehearsals, theatre classes and smaller performances. Behind the scenes are state-of-the-art resources for casts and stage crews, including large, brightly lit dressing rooms and a dedicated space for hair and makeup.
Calling All Artists
While the renovated theatre anchored the project, the school also created a unique visual arts center where students will find dedicated spaces for ceramics, digital photography, digital media and studios for drawing and painting. There is also a gallery with work from professional artists and Middlesex students that is named after a graduate of the school.
The upper floor of the visual arts center includes two art history rooms and a multi-purpose space that overlooks the campus and a mindfulness studio that overlooks a pond.
“Students will enjoy the upgrade that modernity requires,” said Kathy Giles, the former Head of School. “We designed these buildings to provide our students with great, well-lit space and now the facilities’ features reflect the sophistication and excellence of the work that’s being done there.”
Motorized Smoke Vents
Among the unique products used in the renovation were six double-leaf acoustical smoke vents. Manufactured by The BILCO Company, the 6 feet by 6 feet smoke vents include motorized operation, which allows them to be opened and closed from a remote location. They also include limit switches that allow for monitoring on whether the vents are in the open or closed position.
Smoke vents protect property and assist firefighters in bringing a fire under control by removing smoke, heat and gases from a burning building. They are activated upon the melting of a fusible link, and are ideally suited for large expanses of unobstructed space such as factories, warehouses, auditoriums and retail facilities.
BILCO’s acoustical vents go a step further, providing an industry-high STC 46 sound rating. They are frequently used in concert halls, theaters and other venues to guard against noise intrusion.
“The features that were included in the smoke vents were geared to student safety,” Oishi said. “That was of paramount importance. There were also space considerations, and the automated aspect was important due to the fact that we wanted very few things interfering with the rigging sets.”
The vents were also painted with a jet black powder coat finish to add durability and help enhance the environment for theatrical productions. Ryan Cosmini of Pace Representatives procured the smoke vents for the contractor, J.S. Mortimer, Inc. C.E. Floyd served as the general contractor for the project.
The Show Must Go On
McKeown said students were thrilled to have the new theatre in place, especially after being displaced to the school’s hockey rink during construction. “Construction’s exciting, but it can be a slight burden,” he said. “Their reactions when they saw it finally completed were pretty cool. For a long time, it was just something that was going on behind a fence. They were shocked at how amazing the space was.”
Middlesex is certainly a special school, and its new theater and visual arts center set a standard that few institutions can match. From an architectural, artistic and creative viewpoint, CBT’s team and the contractors that built the space delivered on all fronts. The Olmsted brothers and their legendary father would certainly be proud.
“It’s an awesome space,” McKeown said. “The entire community gathers there on a weekly basis, and it’s very comfortable. It provides a space where our community can gather, and that’s something that is very important to our school.”