St. Paul Academy sets the stage for creative learning with a bright and colorful performing arts center

By Frank Edgerton Martin

Bryn Roberts, head of the St. Paul Academy (SPA) and Summit School, likes to talk about the role of the performing arts in liberal-arts education. “There’s a sublime and discrete beauty in music that you can’t achieve in conversation,” he says. Music, drama, and dance, he notes, all open up new ways of asking questions and exploring the human experience.

The school recently reinforced its commitment to this mode of learning with the crisply modern Huss Center for the Performing Arts, designed by HGA Architects and Engineers. Housing a 650-seat theater, large multipurpose room, scene shop, and arts commons, the 36,000-square-foot addition gives young SPA performers a state-of-the-art creative home while also forming a lively new gateway to the campus.

Those students give the Huss Center high marks for its technical excellence and flexibility, but several say there’s an additional design quality that encourages their artistic risk-taking: a sense of intimacy. “It doesn’t feel like I’m stepping into the ‘world of performance’ or some grandiose environment,” one young actor explains. “It’s wonderful to have such an amazing home to perform in.”

Neighbors and passersby are no doubt equally impressed. The addition stretches along Randolph Avenue as a series of boxes clad in thin, stack-bond face brick, with playfully arranged large windows. The architects lined the other two sides of the expansion—the sides heavily trafficked by students—with a system of white perforated aluminum screens that angle out to reveal glimpses of the red-painted precast panels beneath. The eye-catching screens lighten the visual weight of the building; the brick allows it to achieve subtle harmony with a campus whose varied styles—from Tudor Revival to modernist and beyond—tell the story of 20th-century American architecture.

HGA’s Tim Carl, FAIA, describes the challenge of respecting both the scale of the campus and its architectural legacies. “We had to respond to [the 1971 modernist expansion by] Ben Thompson,” he says, “and we didn’t want to create faux Gothic.” With a tight schedule, Carl worked with Nancy Blankfard, AIA, and a small group of young designers to explore options for the plan and the massing. Ultimately, the HGA team placed the theater with its soaring fly space at the center of the addition and surrounded it with an arrangement of smaller, neighborhood-scaled volumes.

The volume at the Huss Center’s prominent northwest corner, on Randolph, contains the Driscoll Family Commons, a large, 24-foot-high room that plays multiple roles: classroom, rehearsal studio, black-box theater, and event space. Curtains can be drawn to achieve full blackout, or they can be opened for visual connections to the neighborhood. Similarly adaptable and nearly as lofty is the gallery-like Redleaf Arts Commons, which extends from the main entry along the south edge of the addition.

But the real drama can be found in the theater, where the audience is enveloped in warm colors and a rich layering of materials. The architects selected African cherry wood for doors, railings, and armrests, and they lightly veiled the red wall panels and adjustable red acoustical curtains with perforated aluminum screens similar to those used outside. A cohesive lighting concept developed by HGA and theater specialists Schuler Shook brings it all to life.

“We worked with Schuler Shook’s Paul Whitaker to integrate LED lights into the perforated screens,” says project architect Daniel Yudchitz, AIA. “The character of the space is transformed as light washes across the metal screens, curtains, and painted concrete.”
With a flexible proscenium stage, a movable orchestra shell, two catwalks, and versatile lighting and sound systems, the theater is equipped to host an array of events, including plays, chorale concerts, performances by SPA’s two student orchestras, films, and school assemblies.

SPA seniors who have been performing in shows ranging from one-act plays to full productions since middle school expound on how well the Huss Center supports a performing-arts curriculum for music, dance, theater, and behind-the-scenes production, such as set design. “The opportunities we have with this stage—the amount of space, the precision of the acoustics, and the lighting capabilities—are incredible,” says one student.

These young performers and their teachers are learning how to play this professional-grade theater like an instrument, fine-tuning it as they experiment with staging, lighting, and sound. The many hours spent rehearsing and performing in the space have instilled in the students a feeling of comfort and ownership that makes them much less nervous when the curtain rises. “It’s one thing to rehearse in a studio and never see the stage until the week prior to opening—it’s a cool experience to see everything come together so swiftly,” the same student adds. “But it’s so easy and gratifying to perform on the stage you’ve become so familiar with.”

Location: St. Paul, Minnesota
Client: St. Paul Academy and Summit School
Architect and landscape architect: HGA Architects and Engineers
Principal-in-charge: Nancy Blankfard, AIA
Project team: Tim Carl, FAIA; Rebecca Krull Kraling, AIA; Daniel Yudchitz, AIA; Ross Altheimer; Erica Christenson
Theater consultant: Schuler Shook
General contractor: McGough Construction
Size: 36,339 square feet
Cost: $19.2 million
Completion: August 2015
Photographer: Richard Brine