The constant flurry of activity at the corner of Markham and Broadway can seem a little underwhelming if you drive by it often enough. The whirling clouds of concrete dust, the orange plastic mesh demarcation of the construction zones, and the temporary fencing have started to seem right at home on that corner downtown, despite the fact that the art deco exterior of the building seems to have changed relatively little. Don’t be fooled, though. The signs of activity outside the building’s perimeter are only a hint of what’s happening inside: a $70 million investment, and the largest architectural update to the facility in history.
Gretchen Hall, the CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, gave us a tour of the construction, and save for a tour she’ll give the city Board of Directors next Tuesday, it’s one of the last peeks until the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s Opus Ball on November 12th, which will serve as a sort of grand re-opening for the auditorium.
Making our way through a labyrinth of scaffolding, insulation, steel and wood, there was activity at every level of the building, all the way to the heart of the new stage, where contractors have, quite literally, dropped the bottom out. An astonishing 36 feet above your head, you can see the spot where the stage floor once was, marked conspicuously by the painted outline of the former location of the backstage fire extinguisher. It’s a major shift, and is probably the main reason why the drastic nature of the developments isn’t particularly evident from the exterior. Instead of building up, they excavated downward, and to great effect.
The exhibition hall is gone, and in its place is a cavernous auditorium with an orchestra pit that can float at the conventional level (below the stage) for an operatic or ballet performance, or can be lifted up to the seating level for performances that highlight the orchestra itself. It can even be extended outward by 5 feet, putting the orchestra right in front of the audience.
Speaking of the audience, it’s safe to say you’ll have a much better chance of getting a “good seat” than you did in the old space. The seats are graduated at an incline, reducing your chances of missing out on the action because the person sitting in front of you is especially tall, or fond of elaborate hats.
Musicians hate nothing quite so much as a hall that eats up all the nuance they studied so intently to develop, and carpet is often the culprit. In the new iteration of the Robinson Center Auditorium (for which acousticians Jaffe Holden were consulted), there’s carpet only in the aisles rather than under the seats themselves, allowing the sound room to breathe and resonate. Large bundles of acoustical draping hang from the ceiling, covered (for now) in white plastic, and that draping will make acoustic modification possible where little existed before. That is, for a highly amplified performance like a Broadway musical, the curtains can dampen the sound so it doesn’t get muddy and overwhelming, but they can also be angled to circulate and facilitate the sound when they need to — say, for an opera.
Translucent metal mesh panels provide a sort of “false ceiling” for aesthetic purposes, above which is an intricate lighting and sound system (prior to this, most lighting was done from the spotlight booth.) There are 14 boxes alongside the auditorium, in classic opera house style, each of which will seat 4 people.
As most of the former structure’s footprint was dedicated to expanding the performance hall itself, it was necessary to break 5,800 square feet of new ground for the facility’s new conference hall and adjoining terrace. This vast veranda overlooks the Arkansas River, all six river bridges near downtown, and Dickey-Stephens Park (In fact, you could almost watch the Travelers play from this vantage point, but who’ll need baseball when there’s Mahler happening inside?) It also adjoins to the Doubletree Hotel, and though it’s rough rooftop to stand on now, it’ll soon be finished out with lovely limestone pavers and a glass railing from which to view the river.