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From the Ryman Auditorium, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts to an assortment of record label headquarters and recording studios, Nashville, TN, has long been a mecca for music lovers. An esteemed list of stars, including Dolly Parton, Webb Pierce, Chet Atkins, Jimmy Webb, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash made their careers in the "Country Music Capital," and up-and-comers continue to flock to the city each June for the four-day Country Music Awards.
But while country may be Nashville’s most famous musical export, it is by no means its only thriving scene. Classical, jazz and other genres are hugely popular, commanding large audiences and producing icons of their own. Among them is the late maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn (1929-2005), director and conductor of the Nashville Symphony for 22 years and namesake of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
Under Schermerhorn’s leadership from 1983, the symphony saw record-breaking CD sales, Grammy Awards, and acclaimed tours, concerts and broadcasts – notably its debut at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 2000. Befitting the orchestra’s international renown, the new Schermerhorn Symphony Center is located on an entire block of Nashville’s "SoBro" (South of Broadway) neighborhood, close to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The 197,000-sq.ft. 1,900-seat facility was designed by Washington, DC-based David M. Schwarz/Architectural Services Inc., whose resume includes the 2,100-seat Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, TX; the renovation and expansion of Severance Hall in Cleveland, OH; and upcoming performing arts facilities in Carmel, IN, and Las Vegas, NV.
Common to all is a seamless collaboration between the architect, acoustician and theater planner that begins on day one. "We are looking for a room where the acoustics and architecture and theater pathology are all one and the same," says Craig P. Williams, principal and project manager. "We don’t want people to walk in and say, ‘Well this was designed by the acoustician,’ with architectural pastiche all over it. Nor do we want some grand architectural statement that requires added reflectors and speakers. We wanted to make sure that our approach was one and the same at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, as we have for all of our performing arts work."
Though several planning studies had designated the SoBro neighborhood an important area for growth, the site posed unique planning and design challenges for the firm back in 2003. There was little on the ground and what did exist – the Country Music Hall of Fame, a 10-story Hilton hotel and the Gaylord venue – were fairly aggressive architectural statements. It was assumed that the front façade of the Schermerhorn would face a new urban park/square, away from the main pedestrian activity on Broadway but in keeping with future development plans. However, the team decided to address the site as it existed, rotating the building 180 degrees so that its ceremonial portico entrance faced Broadway through a gap in the buildings.
"There were several problems with the center facing the park," says Williams. "There was a ramp on the square that led to underground parking, which was just not a good thing to be looking at from the front of a concert hall. Plus, the dimensions of a concert hall – the ceremonial front is narrower than the long sides – meant that our building would have felt "dwarfed" by the larger buildings. Our building really had to be multi-fronted – the site really called for addressing every single street it faced."
By positioning daytime uses such as the box office, stage door and a café in flanking pavilions at the edge of the park on Demonbruen Street, the team hoped to encourage activity there ("great edges make great parks," says Williams). Additionally, it is hoped that the gap through which the Schermerhorn’s ceremonial front is seen from Broadway will be developed as a pedestrian walkway, with restaurants and outdoor seating. In any case, the firm was not about to "bet the rent money" on plans that may or may not materialize. "We thought existing pedestrian activity should take precedent over the fact that, say, Demonbruen to the south has been pegged as a future Avenue of the Arts," says Williams. "Should that happen, we have made our backstage area look like an important, pedestrian-friendly façade, but we were not about to put the front door there."
To reflect the symphony’s classical repertoire and Nashville’s reputation as the "Athens of the South," the team drew on Classical and Beaux-Arts design precedents. However, central to the process was a desire to reflect modern times; the building is intentionally "lighter" and more approachable than its use might suggest, owing in large part to its large clerestory windows and, more subtly, to changes of plane and texture on the Indiana limestone exterior. "In our mind, this is merely a Classically-inspired building and we will leave it to others to determine whether it is Neoclassical, Classical or something else," says Williams. "It depends on whether we are addressing the general public or a more studied group as to how it will be read. The second and fourth parts of the five-part façade are clearly more glassy than you would ever find on a purely Classical building, but besides the percentage of solid and void, its recesses and progressions speak the Classical grammar in a simpler way than the Classical exploration of applied ornament to a building plane."
The integration of natural light into the performance space via clerestory windows was an early, if unusual, goal of the design. Windows are conventionally viewed as a weak link in the acoustics of a performance space, but a trip to Europe convinced the team that this was a challenging worth overcoming. "We toured a whole bunch of concert halls with the purpose of creating a common language and a common goal," says Williams. "As part of that tour we attended a late-afternoon concert in Vienna when, as the music was building to a final crescendo, the sun came through all the windows, striking all the gold leaf in the room and lighting it in a blaze of yellows. We all turned to each other and said, ‘This is why we want natural light.’"
The windows consist of two laminated panes, three and two inches thick, separated by a 30-in. air space. Aesthetically and acoustically, their performance satisfies all parties: "There could be a thunderstorm overhead and you wouldn’t hear it in the room," says Williams. "And in a test, a shotgun being fired from the roof sounded like a tiny pin drop. So, we got the natural light we were looking for, and the acoustician got a room where they could make recordings without the need to do second takes in a storm."
Besides the clerestory windows, the trip to Europe inspired another design element – or rather, its absence. While touring many examples of 1,900-seat rooms that didn’t use reflectors to moderate sound, the team asked acoustician Paul Scarborough of South Norwalk, CT-based Akustiks, LLC, to come up with a solution that "didn’t look like the Starship Enterprise was about to land on stage." Using a model of the room’s shoebox shape – scaled both in proportions and densities of materials – and a spark plug that generated uniform intensity "pink noise," Scarborough was able to establish detailed guidelines for the architects.
There were no guarantees: "We understand that in buildings like this, the acoustics really do come first," says Williams. "So we agreed to work within the acoustician’s rules in terms of ceiling height, room width, pilaster spacing, whatever he needed. It had to sound great, not just good." In the end, computer analysis revealed that reverb times were indeed within an acceptable range and therefore, no hanging reflectors were required. A series of banners and conductors work within the spacing of the pilasters, and the sound quality is reinforced by the critical dimensions of balconies, cornices, pilasters and coffer beams.
The center features architectural lighting by Crenshaw Lighting of Floyd, VA; woodwork by Fetzer’s Architectural Woodwork, Inc. of Salt Lake City, UT; windows by Wausau Windows & Doors of Wausau, WI; custom carpeting by Crossley Axminster of Benoit, MS; and wood flooring by Floorworks of Nashville, TN. The contractor was American Constructors, Inc. (also of Nashville, TN).
A convertible floor system by J.R. Clancy, Inc. of Syracuse, NY, allows the auditorium to be transformed from a traditional raked-floor theater with 1,000 fixed seats at the orchestra level to a 6,000-sq.ft. flat floor, suitable for dances. Similarly, the orchestra floor’s eight wagons can be moved automatically, one by one, from the hall to a lift that lowers to the basement storage room – a changeover that takes less than two hours.
Versatility is just one reason why, since opening its doors in September 2006, the Schermerhorn Center has gained a reputation as a great place to perform and enjoy music. The Nashville Symphony alone performs more than 100 concert events each season, including recitals, choral concerts, cabaret, jazz and world music. And for the public, the building is a great addition to the local heritage. "Using local iconography as a system of ornamentation is a system that we have used in a lot of our buildings," says Williams. "From the get-go, we sought the advice of local historians and key individuals within the community about the symbols and graphic icons that represent Nashville and the state of Tennessee."
These include: passion flowers on the keystones; irises (the state flower) used in "20 different ways;" William Strickland-inspired Neo-Egyptian profiles and "Flying Liar" motifs; and hidden coffee beans, honoring the Maxwell House family, whose fortune helped fund the orchestra in its early days. "It is our job," says Williams, "to find ways – subtle and bold – to integrate these into the building and make it of its time and place."
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