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Plans Unveiled for New Theater Facility on Comm Ave

Sale of BU Theatre fuels CFA improvements


Initial concepts for a new 250-seat studio theater and production spaces, showing a modern, steel-beamed, glass-filled space, set back from the street in the 820-846 area of Commonwealth Avenue, were received positively by the Brookline Planning Board when they were unveiled at a March 10 meeting.

“We got great feedback from the town,” says Walt Meissner, BU associate vice president for operations, who described the meeting as constructive and noted that it was a preliminary step to final approval. “The key issue will be the effect on the traffic flow on the site and the ins-and-outs of parking, things that the University is looking forward to working on with the town of Brookline.” Meissner (CFA’81) says he was pleased that members of the Brookline arts community came to the meeting to support the theater and expressed interest in seeing more arts programming in the neighborhood. He says the town of Brookline will appoint members to a design advisory team, which will work closely with BU through the first stages of the design process. The new theater will not replace the large proscenium stage of the BU Theatre, which seats 850. For operas and other large College of Fine Arts productions that had formerly been staged there, the University will lease suitable venues in the area.

Renderings of the new facility, designed by Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects, depict wide, tiered benches and greenery flanking the building, which will house production facilities, such as scenery, prop, and costume shops. Faculty offices and teaching spaces, including a lighting lab and design studios, will also find a home in the building. The concept calls for a two-level subsurface parking garage, a smaller surface parking lot, and fully landscaped buffer areas fronting the historic Brookline Cottage Farm neighborhood’s Essex and Dummer Streets.

Artistic Rendering of the plaza outside of the new Boston University College of Fine Arts Performance Theater

Preliminary renderings show wide, tiered benches and greenery flanking the new theater, which will also house production facilities, such as scenery, prop, and costume shops.

The construction of the new facilities is made possible by the sale of the BU Theatre for $25 million, which was announced Monday. The new state-of-the-art facilities, next to the galleries at 808 Commonwealth Avenue and opposite CFA, are part of a $50 million improvement to the school. The University plans to open the facility in fall 2017.

Lynne Allen, interim dean of CFA, says a new modern performance complex in the middle of the Charles River Campus promises more opportunities for BU students, faculty, and staff to attend productions than when they had to go to Huntington Avenue. The new theater should also create a following for other works put on by CFA, she says.

Allen says the School of Theatre has a long-standing tradition of cross-disciplinary collaboration through its academic outreach. “The new BU Theatre Center creates opportunity to strengthen ties with current academic partners, including Questrom and the College of Arts & Sciences, and forge new connections,” she says. “We are really excited to have this vibrant community so close at hand and for the School of Theatre to no longer be split in two separate locations.”

Jim Petosa, director of the School of Theatre, is also excited about the new space. “The unification of the School of Theatre on the Charles River Campus will create and promote a more creative community,” he says. “This is a grand vision for the school that will usher in a new era that promises strengthened professional education, increased interaction with the University at large, and greater connectivity among our collaborative artists.”

Artistic Rendering of the inside of the new Boston University College of Fine Arts Performance Theater

A preliminary rendering of what the 250-seat studio theater may look like.

Physical updates to CFA began in 2008 with the $15 million construction of 120 state-of-the-art, soundproof practice rooms for the School of Music. By this fall, new facilities will be created on the fourth floor of 808 Comm Ave for the graduate graphic design program, moving it closer to the graduate painting and printmaking programs. Design work for those projects is being handled by Wilson Butler Architects of Boston, a firm that has worked previously with the Boston Ballet and Royal Caribbean cruise line. Improvements are also scheduled for CFA’s first floor at 855 Comm Ave, the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery, as well as its façade and oversized windows, which were bricked up more than 40 years ago. The opening of the windows, which has been temporarily postponed, “will change the dynamic tremendously and be so inviting for passersbys to see what is going on,” Allen says.

While the physical improvements move forward, so too do discussions by members of a task force convened last year by Jean Morrison, University provost, charged with articulating a new vision for the college. The task force, headed by Allen, will submit its recommendations to the provost in June.

“There is definitely a feeling of excitement around all the changes in store,” says Allen. “We are excited about the attention our stellar programs are receiving, and know the renovations and new building projects will benefit students at BU and all those interested in the arts.”

The public meeting of the theater’s design advisory team is March 30, 2016, at 7:30 p.m., at Brookline Town Hall, Room 111, 333 Washington St., Brookline. Find more information here.

Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

19 Comments on Plans Unveiled for New Theater Facility on Comm Ave

  • Anonymous on 03.23.2016 at 8:27 am

    If this doesn’t get you excited as a school of theatre graduate then you are committed to being angry. This is a beautiful building in the heart of campus with BRAND NEW facilities! It is the dawn of a new age for the program. Sure things will be different and the close relationship with the Huntington will be missed but this is an exciting moment for the CFA and the School of Theatre. Kudos to the University for this awesome gesture

    • Anonymous on 03.24.2016 at 12:00 am

      Oh, where’s the beautiful building? Is it behind the godawful ugly building in the renderings? Even the inside of that building looks ugly. I guess this isn’t much of a surprise though; hardly any post-war buildings are attractive. As with the fine arts, architecture has truly lost its way.

    • Gerald Collins on 03.24.2016 at 6:05 pm

      It is too metallic. I dont like how it juts out on top.
      The theatre looks like my high school basketball court with chairs.
      Doent look comfortable space
      Doesnt look like a theatre
      250 seats is not enough
      It look like the new theatre at Gardner Museum -too cold.
      What about putting a larger theatre in front of the Yawkey center/student services on Comm. ave. at entry to Kenmore square.Could be uses for theatre and music performance. Not that difficult for studnets to get to. Would get more of the general public as well

  • Charles Merzbacher on 03.23.2016 at 9:06 am

    As an avid theatergoer and a BU prof involved in the arts, I’m delighted to see the theater arts burgeoning at the university. As you read on, keep in mind this fundamental point: the addition of a state-of-the-art mid-size theater to the university landscape is a GOOD THING. Congratulations to CFA for this very exciting development.


    It appears that this theater has been developed without serious discussion and consideration for its use as a space for presenting motion picture media. It’s not the School of Theatre’s job to worry about this, but given that BU has no movie theater on campus, we seem to be missing an opportunity here to serve the broader needs of the arts community— and to be thinking and working as one institution.

    Perhaps the development of this new performance space will allow Tsai Performance Center to be retrofitted to serve as a media theater. The relative deadness of Tsai’s acoustics make it a tough venue for live performance but better suited to the presentation of lectures and recorded media. The recent Redstone Film Festival screening at Tsai revealed serious deficiencies in the projection set-up there, however.

    A final point: Recent building projects at BU such as the Marciano Commons and the redevelopment of the Law School (both of which I believe were designed by Bruner/Cott) gave me hope that the university was weaning itself from its reliance on Elkus Manfredi as its go-to architectural firm. Elkus Manfredi are a team of hardworking, journeyman architects. They are a big company with a proven record, but what that record proves is that they are followers, not leaders in their field. These buildings along Comm Ave will be defining our campus long after we are gone, and every edifice the university erects adds to or detracts from its legacy as an actor (pun intended) in the city’s cultural life. Going forward, I would urge the university to make a concerted effort to work with more nimble and visionary design firms. Two local examples that come to mind are William Rawn Associates and Peter Rose + Partners.

    • Local Theater Lover on 03.24.2016 at 12:25 pm

      I agree!! It would be nice to have a bit more originality in a theater space if they are going to all the trouble of building a new, modern space. Their designs look like the “new” performance space at the Gardner museum. A small space that really doesn’t give a lot of flexibility or as much of hands on in a large road house type space. That is a detraction for their students. A company like William Rawn Associates is a fantastic local firm that knows how to design wonderful, adaptable performance spaces that are much more creative and modern than the designs I see here. Maybe next time?

    • Marc Robillard on 03.24.2016 at 5:18 pm

      Professor Merzbacher,

      Just as a point of clarification and in fairness to Elkus Manfredi, the architectural firm of Canon Design had been the go-to firm for the University. Canon Design was the architect for all of the Student Village Buildings as well as the academic buildings on Commonwealth Avenue, and Cummington and St. Mary’s Streets.

      • Charles Merzbacher on 03.26.2016 at 10:03 am

        Marc– Fair point. Upon further investigation, Canon does get the “go-to architecture firm” award at BU. But Elkus Manfredi has a long association with with the university, and I believe has been or is involved in designs for COM and SHA. I don’t want to be hyperbolic: I don’t dislike everything Canon or Elkus Manfredi has done. I don’t even dislike the renderings of the proposed new theater. But when you have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create a new arts center in the heart of the university, I think we need to hold ourselves to a very high design standard, and by that yardstick, I think we can do better.

  • Just another BU parent on 03.23.2016 at 9:36 am

    250 seats. This means it has a quarter to a third of the seats of the Huntington, presumably less space on stage and for the orchestra, and it costs twice as much to build as what we got for selling the Huntington. Hmm… .

  • Sam on 03.23.2016 at 9:42 am

    Prof. Merzbacher, I appreciate your thoughtful perspectives and your suggestions for visionary design firms. As a former design student, I agree with you about the power of building and public spaces to define our street blocks, campuses and cities long after we are gone. Thank you!

  • Kenneth Smith on 03.23.2016 at 4:14 pm

    From the image, yet another performance space inappropriate for live musical performances of all kinds. No surprise.

  • An unsurprised artist on 03.23.2016 at 9:00 pm

    I love the fact that even in the world of digital preliminal renderings, all of the actors are white.


    • student on 03.25.2016 at 10:15 am

      Really? I can’t see any of these people closely enough to tell.

  • Jimmy on 03.23.2016 at 10:03 pm

    Looks like people could fall off that edge in the top image.
    Might want to add a fence or maybe rethink the rendering.

  • Kathy McBride on 03.24.2016 at 9:51 am

    Architectural comment – the building looks somewhat bird friendly -and I like that! The American Bird Conservancy recently published “BirdFriendly Buildings” stating 300 million to 1 billion birds die each year from collisions with glass on buildings. The ABC provides solutions for builders and this rendering looks (mostly) compliant. http://collisions.abcbirds.org Maybe we can bring this to the architect’s attention.

  • Ralph Stalter, Jr on 03.26.2016 at 9:30 am

    What a beautiful addition to Boston’s arts and cultural landscape! Now the students can spend more time on the creative arts and less time traveling across town!?!

    I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Merzbacher: “These buildings along Comm Ave will be defining our campus long after we are gone, and every edifice the university erects adds to or detracts from its legacy as an actor (pun intended) in the city’s cultural life.”

  • Linda K taylor on 03.26.2016 at 8:46 pm

    I must admit I am a bit disappointed with both the inside and the outside of the new building. The performing space looks very sterile… a metal box has no style… great to have the theatre department all together, but how can one replace the history and connection with the Huntington that those of us who got our Master’s there benefited from?? Fantastic to have the new theatre and ability to build sets and costumes, but it is still far from “a professional space” that most Master’s candidates will experience in their lives after BU!

    • Marc Hoechstetter on 03.29.2016 at 12:58 pm

      I agree with Linda and though any new space will work for actors and directors it will be sorely lacking for all of the techies. The loss of the stage and arch will hinder a true professional experience that most theatre techs will face professionaly.
      The reality of “renting” space downtown for large productions has yet to be fully explained as I see it frought with complications, not least the interface with the unions.
      Since the goal is to integrate and there is good will from the community of Brookline why not build a real theatre that accomodates theatre, opera and all medias. This would put BU on the top as far as a theater and art school.

  • Grad student on 03.28.2016 at 9:48 am

    BU is the king of ugly buildings – they simply keep designing a non-architecturally cohesive campus with buildings that rapidly go out of date in style. This building is ugly, Mugar is ugly, the law school is ugly, too many to name are ugly.

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