schnitzer hall upgrades?

© Charles Noble
© Charles Noble

This was in today’s Daily Journal of Commerce:

Changes in store for Schnitz, Main Street
New RFP issued by MERC calls for designs of an ‘iconic venue’ next to hall to transform Main Street

POSTED: 04:00 AM PDT Monday, August 25, 2008
BY SAM BENNETT

The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is ready for a makeover.

The 80-year-old concert hall, formerly the Paramount Theatre, has a tight lobby when filled with people, cramped seating and a shortage of women’s restrooms, according to Robyn Williams, executive director of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts.

PCPA is part of the Metropolitan Exposition Recreation Commission (MERC), a subsidiary of Metro. MERC oversees the PCPA as well as the Oregon Convention Center and Portland Expo Center.

To address concerns about the concert hall, MERC is planning a two-part project that would fix its inadequacies and also explore developing a structure next to the hall on Southwest Main Street, between Southwest Broadway and Southwest Park Avenue.

A recently released request for proposals, issued by MERC, seeks architects “to design both a significant expansion to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the creation of a new iconic venue transforming Main Street between the concert hall and the Antoinette Hatfield Hall in a cultural center and pedestrian plaza.”

The RFP calls for a facility on Main Street that “could be used to host small classes, seminars and public outreach programs in a cultural arts district setting.”

Williams said the winning architecture firm would “look at what’s possible and what’s not possible” in terms of upgrades to the hall, informally known as the Schnitz, and construction on or over Main Street.

Possibilities for Main Street could include a restaurant or additional performance space, Williams said. “We don’t know if we can close Main Street or build something over it,” she said. “We want to do something that’s in the best interest of the arts.”

The Schnitz is overdue for improvements, according to Williams. MERC wants the winning firm to study possible acoustic improvements and a seismic upgrade to the Schnitz.

She said some of the improvements, such as acoustic changes, would be made to improve the symphony-goer’s experience.

Elaine Calder, president of the Oregon Symphony Association, said the symphony wants to know “what can be accomplished by way of acoustic enhancements and physical improvements to the auditorium.”

“As the major tenant of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, we are of course vitally interested in the planned improvements,” she said. “Patron amenities are important to us and to our audiences, and so is the actual musical experience.”

The RFP is broken into two phases: in the first phase, MERC will seek qualified architects, and in the second phase MERC will ask three firms to participate in a conceptual design competition “for design of an iconic Main Street venue.”

A 2005 feasibility study, according to the RFP, determined that the Schnitz and the Hatfield Hall would benefit from new construction on Main Street, by providing a new cultural center. The Schnitz would also need renovations and enhancements that would help the overall “building design and public experience,” it states.

The Schnitz was built in 1928 as a venue for vaudeville and showing movies. It remained a movie theater until 1972 and then became a concert hall. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and received a major renovation in 1984. The building was designed by the firm Rapp and Rapp, in the Italian Renaissance style. It seats 2,700.

Williams said the winning design firm will need to explore what can be done with the block-long stretch of Main Street, which currently can be closed off with gates for special events. As for the Schnitz, she said, “We’re looking at how to make this a good, vital home for the arts and how to keep the facility vital for the next 20 years.”

What is most sad about this, to me, is that if Elaine Calder hadn’t been solicited to comment for this article, there would have been no mention of the acoustics of the hall whatsoever.  It’s not the worst hall in the world, but it’s rapidly falling behind the class of the orchestra which it houses.  That having been said (and duly noted, I hope) front of house amenities have been sorely lacking, and some sort of major overhaul is needed.  I hope that plans will soon be underway to figure out where the symphony will perform while this is being done!

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