Minneapolis architects convert a 1930s gymnasium at the University of Arkansas into an elegant, 21st-century performance hall

By Linda Mack

The handsome but neglected 1936 brick fieldhouse was once the social hub of the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. But as athletic needs changed and the campus grew, it became nothing more than swing space for construction projects. Chancellor David Gearhart saw another possibility: transforming it into an on-campus performance hall.

The school shared a downtown performance hall with the city, but its music program was slowly being squeezed out. “It was getting harder and more expensive to get dates,” says Ronda Mains, chair of the Music Department and professor of flute and music education. “It was shaping our program.”

A yearlong study confirmed the chancellor’s vision, and the university hired Minneapolis-based HGA Architects and Engineers to reimagine the building. “We were drawn to their other work in performing arts,” says Mains.

While Allison+Partners of Little Rock undertook the exterior restoration, HGA analyzed the giant barn of a building to see what could be done. Though it would have been ideal to have higher ceilings for optimal acoustics, the existing shell needed to be kept, and HGA made the most of it. “Large steel moment frames [a series of steel arches and horizontal tie rods] span the space like an airplane hangar and create the ideal size and proportion for a 600-seat hall,” says project architect Andrew Weyenberg, AIA. “Our idea was for the hall to take the shape of the shell. That was the ‘aha’ moment, and the client became excited.”

The original lobby—a small, low-ceilinged space—was inadequate for the new hall. To open it up, the second-floor coaches’ offices were removed and replaced by light monitors that funnel light in from high windows. With intrusions eliminated, new historically inspired terrazzo floors installed at the entry, and arched entries to the former gymnasium enlarged, the 1,000-square-foot lobby has much more breathing room. A new exterior plaza connects the building to the historic core of the campus.

Tall, narrow spaces along either side of the hall form two new symmetrical lobbies with crisp white walls and high windows. The design team curved the walls to express the graceful arch of the wide-span moment frames. The foyers serve as gallery and special-event spaces—“a nice way to activate the building between performances,” says Weyenberg. Their simplicity is stunning.

Inside the hall, dark seats, dark-toned plaster ribs, and larch slats on the stage create a sense of warmth and intimacy. “We wanted a contrast between the hall and the white lobbies,” says Weyenberg. The simple materials kept the budget intact: Plaster is a cost-effective way to achieve mass for acoustics, says Weyenberg, and the wood was used on the stage for maximum impact. The wood slats cover adjustable acoustic treatments, which make the hall tunable for a variety of performances.

Though the stage has catwalks and movable reflectors for lighting and acoustics, it’s used mostly for the Music Department’s rich programs—four choirs, four concert bands, an orchestra, chamber groups, and opera. “And now we can rehearse in the space, which really enhances the performances,” says Mains, who is thrilled with the new facility. “The quality of our performances is better. We have a presence on campus. We can host other programs, such as Trombone Day or a conducting symposium. It’s opened the doors for our curriculum to grow.”

The lobby spaces have hosted receptions and even sit-down dinners—and the acoustics are good there, too. “For what we need, it’s perfect,” says Mains. “People come in and they are just amazed at the sound—and they come back.”

Location: Fayetteville, Arkansas
Client: University of Arkansas
Design architect: HGA Architects and Engineers
Principal-in-charge: Gary Reetz, FAIA
Project designer: Tim Carl, FAIA
Architect of record: Allison+Partners
Energy modeling: Cromwell
General contractor: Manhattan Construction Company
Size: 39,500 square feet of adaptive reuse
Cost: $14.1 million
Completion: October 2016
Photographers: Paul Crosby; Mark Jackson Photography

“The reverse dormers in the lobby spaces bring light in in a very beautiful way. And then the existing bent frame of the gymnasium has been abstracted with a series of plaster ribs that focuses the audience to the stage and the stage to the audience. It’s quite sophisticated.”
—Wendell Burnette, FAIA