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The creative renovation of a former manufacturing plant puts Rhode Island’s philharmonic, youth orchestra, and music school under one acoustically superb roof.

THE CREATION OF THE CARTER CENTER, the new home of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School, in East Providence, Rhode Island, was a lot like gathering a symphony orchestra. Just as seventy some winds, strings, drums, and horns come together to make music in a harmonious unit, the new music school unified what hitherto had been an institution scattered across the state.

With the opening of the adaptively reused manufacturing plant, the Carter Center became the largest dedicated community music facility in New England.  The center is made up of the youth orchestra, the music school (founded in 1956 and 1986, respectively), and the philharmonic itself, and before the new building opened, these groups occupied commercial offices and school basements.As I have thought more about the mystery of the missing side lights I have come to wonder about the electricians who would have done that work. Could they have any recollection of what they did there and also possibly have knowledge about the lights themselves?

David J. Beauchesne, executive director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School, recalls the collection of facilities as “begged, borrowed, and rented” space, “and none of it appropriate to music. We had great faculty, great families, but what we did not have was a central space.” In fact, there wasn’t a single public building devoted to music performance in the entire Ocean State.

Having determined that Rhode Island would have a real home for music and music education, the building committee for the new facility visited a number of organizations and colleges that had erected music buildings in recent years. They asked a lot of questions, particularly of faculty and students. Even before they found a property, they chose William Kite Architects of Providence, hired contractor E.W. Burman of Warwick, Rhode Island, and selected Cavanaugh Tocci Associates of Sudbury, Massachusetts, as acousticians. Identifying such a “dream team,” Beauchesne believes, allowed them to complete the project in 18 months and, at about $160 per square foot, to do “a great job on a limited budget.”  The school bought a former manufacturing plant, a 50,000-square-foot metal box on eight scruff y industrial acres. For Kite project principal Jonathan Bell, the challenge of creating something successful from the most unprepossessing of sites made this project his favorite to date.

Says William Kite, founding principal of the firm, “We took an empty big box and, with only a bare-bones budget, created a lively space where you can experience that space as you would a symphony.”

Almost a blank slate, the factory building readily accommodates 31 practice studios (roughly 100 square feet each), an 18-station electronic keyboard lab, a Suzuki classroom, offices, and public gathering places. The one-level building is also handicap accessible. But it was the acoustical mandates that posed design and budget challenges: Double walls, floating floors, and quiet heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems were incredibly expensive. Those demands took a large portion of the budget, forcing the building’s designer to be especially creative in selecting the more visible materials in the school.

Today, new windows and skylights bathe the center in natural light. The music students and their families are accommodated in a warm, friendly environment.  There are comfortable lounge areas outside the practice rooms for siblings and waiting parents. Whimsical round glass peepholes — some at toddler level — on the opaque interior glass partition walls allow visitors to look in without distracting students.  These fanciful circles have become a leitmotif of the school, which off ers music to students of all ages.

Inserted into the old factory, but breaking out of the roof to allow higher ceilings and natural light for the interconnecting lobby, are two rehearsal/recital halls — the project’s signature elements. “The owner and architect made the very wise decision to raise the roof height of the building,” says Christopher Storch, Cavanaugh Tocci’s senior consultant for the job, “which gave us the volume necessary for good acoustics in the two large ensemble spaces.” Both halls are similar, each roughly a cube with canted walls that allow for echoless reverberations.  They were fashioned to the highest acoustical precision, but one has to look closely to realize that the handsome brown wall and ceiling panels are basic medium-density fiberboard (think furniture at IKEA).  Other acoustical features are the small cloud-like ceiling panels (also inexpensive stock models) and the sinuous wave that forms the back wall of the main orchestra hall. All of these elements — room shapes, panels, fiberboard, and clouds — contributed to the acoustical payoff . The high-quality transformation of the existing building was, in Storch’s words, “a silk purse from a sow’s ear.”

These attractive music halls do not reveal their cost-cutter heritage: forgoing frills meant that the music school team had to do everything right. The efforts have paid off to a satisfying effect. Since the philharmonic, the school, and several nonprofit singing groups have moved into the Carter Center, enrollments have increased dramatically, and music is reaching many more people of all ages. Fabulous sound, it seems, is just one benefit of this thoughtful design.

written by william morgan
photographed by warren jagger