An 1876 train depot was reimagined as a modern performing arts complex. It now represents the gateway to the historical downtown and the wonderful richness of the brick detailing and the character and scale of the building. It stands at Towers Corner, a collector of streets that mark the entry to the downtown. Five streets join in front of this building, a prime location for a train terminus for a once bustling city. Over the 240 years, the building degraded to a vacant shell of its former self and was first rescued by the Lowell National Historic Park Service and then by Middlesex Community College, an institution with a record of acquiring historic buildings and repurposing them for academic purposes. The 1876 exterior of the building was preserved, and the interior of the building was completely reconstructed to make room for three major teaching spaces; a new proscenium theater classroom, music recital hall, and a dance studio black box theater.
The Academic Arts Center began as an integral piece of the facilities plan when the College decided to create an urban campus in Lowell in 1988 to complement their nearby suburban campus. Multiple studies stagnated until the acquisition of a shuttered former railroad depot turned theater, turned bowling alley finally gave them a space in 2008. The long gestation period caused the College to seek the maximum value for this once in a lifetime project. Working closely with the College, the challenge was to distill the program to the most necessary elements and then study the most effective ways to expand within the existing footprint and a minimumal expansion. As a result, a suite of theater and performance technologies and designed flexible spaces were developed to allow for experimentation and learning.
To accommodate these spaces, an elliptical shear core ‘egg’ volume was inserted within the brick shell. The modern insertion into the historic shell is a fully grouted 10” concrete masonry structure clad in veneer panels that serves as the horizontal bracing and vertical load bearing for this 240 year old building. This preserves the historic façades and envelope while allowing the building to take on a new life as a performing arts center.
A place for performing arts was a goal for the College since the creation of its urban campus. The college has built its campus by acquiring and restoring historic buildings within the city. The planning process began as an effort to understand how to fit their long-planned goals into the small historic structure they acquired. The College administration, the associated faculty, the National Historic Park Service, and city, each with differing goals, participated in the planning process.
Overall, the site of the new performing arts center, within the Lowell National Historic Park, is part of the renewed urban core. Located at an important intersection of major streets, it is the gateway to the historic downtown area. As the soul and image of the city, heritage buildings must be a part of its vitality, and this building is a notable structure. The new color changing interior object, that houses the theater, recital hall and dance studio, creates a dynamic juxtaposition between old and new, improving both at the same time. The new Richard and Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center will serve as a catalyst for future urban development and will cement the College’s commitment to an urban campus.
Leers Weinzapfel Associates is a practice recognized for its exceptional quality of design for the public realm in urban and campus contexts. The group’s special strength is a “mission impossible” ability to meet extraordinarily difficult building challenges with uncommon design clarity, elegance, and refinement. We are committed to providing meaningful spaces for human interaction and to promoting social well-being. Our work is diverse, including technically demanding infrastructure installations, advanced learning and living environments for educational institutions, to civic buildings and community recreation centers. In 2007, the American Institute of Architects honored us with the Firm Award, the highest distinction the AIA bestows on an architecture practice, the first and only woman-owned firm to be so honored. ARCHITECT Magazine has included the firm on its list of Top 50 architecture firms in the country, for the past five years in a row.