When Kendall Hall was constructed in 1950, replacing Blanchard Hall gymnasium on the Mount Holyoke College campus, it must have been a wonder.
By 2008, it was a wonder that these two programs had managed to coexist peacefully for all those years. Despite overlapping interests in movement and exercise, increasing needs for both growing programs were competing for limited space within the building. To make matters worse, a previous renovation that had added a 300-seat dance performance space had resulted in an interior that was jumbled. Certain of the benefit to the college in the recruitment of students and in maintaining their health, the administration determined the scope of the building's fitness center offerings would have to expand significantly. Spaces long set aside for dance became the focus of these planning efforts.
Building a new, dedicated facility just for dance was one option, but administrators wanted to keep the programs together, if such a solution could be found. Repurposing available spaces is the first and best way to be green. It saves not only the cost of a new building, but the cost of demolishing and disposal in a landfill. Also significant, repurposing and adding to an existing complex avoids duplication of infrastructure: A separate structure means two boilers and chiller plants, two lobbies, multiple exit stairs, and a large increase in building envelope to heat, cool and maintain. As complex as the situation was, the college and its design team were able to find a solution that gave its dance program a greater presence while building a fitness center that rivals those of the colleges of its caliber.
Practice facilities for dance have only a few specific requirements — an appropriate, comfortable surface (a sprung wood floor is standard), sensitive light and air handling controls, and a relatively separate location to ensure a quiet environment. If there are windows (and few studios in this era lack them), they can include a mix of transparent and translucent glass for added privacy, and doors are made wide enough to allow the transport of larger objects (such as a piano). And of course, then there needs to be dedicated storage space for costumes, cubbies for personal belongings, mirrors and ballet bars.
In Mount Holyoke's case, an earlier renovation of the 100,000-square-foot dance and athletic complex had seen the relocation of a natatorium and the installation of a permanent dance performance theater on the decked-over former swimming pool. Its seating area was a gently sloped set of risers made of painted plywood on which sat rows of folding chairs - a bit rustic, perhaps, but it was home, and respected enough as a center for dance performance that Mount Holyoke became a hub for The Five College Dance Department, a shared effort of the Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith and University of Massachusetts Amherst dance departments.
This was, in fact, a complication. Mount Holyoke's practice studios were at the center of the facility in spite of the department's desire for separation from other building functions, and its performance space wasn't adjacent. The dance department had greater prominence at Mount Holyoke than in most schools its size - but if the administration acquiesced to the athletic department's need for more (and grander) space, was it prepared to spend perhaps $10 million on a new facility dedicated to dance?
These were all considerations for Wethersfield, Conn.-based architectural firm Moser Pilon Nelson when the firm began early design work on what was then only an expanded fitness center project. There was initial discussion about subdividing the existing dance studios vertically, given those spaces' 30-foot ceiling height. A floor could be added and a vaulted skylight specified to allow fitness to take over the lower portion while the dancers leaped ever higher above. This, however, wouldn't solve the dance program's adjacency problems.
In the end, the dance department — aware that the administration did not see a dedicated facility as feasible — began to negotiate for a plan that could meet both departments' goals. A $3 million fitness center renovation had become a $5 million renovation and addition for dance.
The renovated Kendall Sports and Dance Complex project is a testament to the collective power of small design gestures. Working within the building's existing materials palette, as well as within a limited budget, the design team nonetheless achieved a sense of airiness and serenity through building height and the judicious use and placement of glass.
Starting with the notion that the dance program is best served by bringing together its disparate elements, the solution became clear to designers. A 4,750-square-foot addition was placed next to the dance performance space, comprising two dance studios separated from the theater by a corridor. As part of the expansion, a new entry plaza replaced weathered steps of crumbling concrete and broken slate with a diagonally placed grand stair under an entry canopy emphasizing the new entry. A 30-foot vertical glass element provides a view into the dance center circulation at the juncture of the new dance wing to the existing complex.
≈Inside, the performance center got permanent, fixed seating, with the slope made steeper for enhanced sight lines and to accommodate a theater-arts classroom underneath. The project's trickiest maneuver involved finding daylight for what was now a fully interior space. The room's previous incarnation had floor-to-ceiling glass-block windows, a vestige of the natatorium, which had been curtained for black-box theater purposes, but which provided welcome daylight during practice sessions. As these were now eliminated by the aforementioned firewall, the design team specified a 12-by-80-foot skylight that runs the length of the performance space, outfitted with blackout shades that open and close with the push of a button.
Removing the dance studios from the building's core meant that a truly state-of-the-art fitness facility could be fashioned out of the vaulted space, with a mezzanine included for group-cycling programs and the floor below for a strength and conditioning circuit. Improvements included a skylight above the mezzanine to introduce additional daylight. The entry corridor running the entire length of the east side of the fitness center became a glass wall to display the equipment and activity inside, and to borrow daylight for the corridor and the coaches' offices across the hallway.
The reorganization complete, the dance program has an end of the building that — during performances, at least — it can call its own. In day-to-day operations, the two programs maintain a mutually beneficial relationship. Dance spaces (as were the older dance spaces) are utilized by the general student body — at such moments, the athletic department terms them "activity spaces" — for drop-in classes in offerings as diverse as ballroom dancing and folk dancing, as well as yoga and Pilates classes conducted through the physical education department. And dancers, as one might expect, utilize fitness spaces along with other members of the student body.
Steve Nelson, AIA (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner with Wethersfield, Conn.-based Moser Pilon Nelson Architects.