By Dan Perez
The Westminster Symphonic Choir has recorded and performed under internationally acclaimed conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Masur. However, there is one thing Westminster Choir College (WCC) has been lacking — a practice space up to par with its world-renowned résumé.
The Playhouse, the Choir’s primary rehearsal space since it was built in the late 1940s, needs improved acoustics and extra elbow space.
College officials outlined a proposed construction project during a Regional Planning Board of Princeton meeting on Feb. 21. The project, slated to break ground in July, calls for the construction of an academic building, complete with a new and improved rehearsal facility for the Symphonic Choir that will address those problems.
“Our goal with this project is to build a new academic building for students and faculty to effectively develop our curriculum,” said Robert Annis, the dean and director of WCC. “The project is not intended to increase student enrollment, but it will improve existing programs at the school.”
The proposal also includes an addition and renovations to the Playhouse, which will connect to a new academic building and a general services building.
The construction of the academic building is expected to cost around $8 million, which will be funded through sources including donor gifts and state programs for college -capital needs, said Mike Reca, the facilities director.
The last new building built on the campus was the William H. Scheide Student Center, which opened in 1975, and the last major renovations took place in 1997 at Erdman Hall, the building that houses offices and studies for the Voice and Piano Departments, Annis said.
Despite the flux in construction, WCC does not plan to expand its student population.
“Our academic mission and curriculum hasn’t changed,” Annis said. “We will maintain our enrollment at 450 students. We don’t intend to increase the level of activities on campus.”
However, the cost estimates for the Playhouse range from $1.5 million to $2.5 million, said Jonathan Meer, the vice president of University Advancement at Rider. There are two separate fundraising campaigns established — one for the academic building and one for the Playhouse.
Fundraising for the academic building is complete, while efforts to reach the Playhouse campaign goal are still in the works, said Meer.
“With regard to the Playhouse project, we have secured several hundred thousand dollars in gift support and our fundraising activities are just ramping up,” he said. “The balance we need to complete the funding depends on which construction or renovation options are ultimately chosen in the planning process.”
The largest donation, $3 million, will come from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation of Pittsburgh.
“Ms. Elsie Hillman is an alumna of the choir college and together with her husband, Henry, has supported WCC for almost five decades,” Meer said.
The rehearsal space in the planned academic building will be named the Hillman Performance Hall. The building itself will be named the Marion Buckelew Cullen Center, in memory of the WCC trustee who donated some $5 million to the school.
Not all of Cullen’s gift will be used for the construction project — a portion of it will go toward building the new academic building, according to Meer.
The Feb. 21 meeting was a “courtesy review” meant to give area residents and the planning board an opportunity to provide input on the plans, said Reca.
“Based on that feedback we will work with the Princeton Engineering and Zoning offices to accomplish the needed approval for the project,” he added. “From there, we will need construction permits from the Department of Community Affairs. Rider applied for those permits in early February and we anticipate they may be approved in late spring.”
Because the proposed site of the project sits more than 150 feet from a public zone and the municipality has no jurisdiction, the college doesn’t need approval for the expansion project, said Ardman.
The academic building will fall in line with the physical appearance of other WCC buildings, said Michael Shatken, a member of KSS Architects.
“The iconic image of Williamson Hall heavily influenced the architectural decisions for the new academic building,” he said. “The building will have a choir rehearsal room with the capacity for a full symphonic choir. There are three additional classrooms, one with 16 seats and two larger rooms of about 45 seats each.”
The academic building will be 11,790 square feet, the general services building will measure 1,958 square feet and the addition to the Playhouse will be 1,492 square feet.
Currently, the college uses Bristol Chapel and the Williamson Hall lounge for student recitals, said Annis.
“These aren’t appropriate spaces for recitals,” Shatken said. “The new rehearsal room will be a better option for student recitals and we will be able to use the lounge as it was intended to be used — as a true lounge for students.”
Visiting conductors have said the Playhouse doesn’t work effectively for their rehearsals on campus, said Annis.
The Playhouse improvements include a new sound booth and entry space, he said.
“The stage areas will be improved and there will be better acoustics,” Shatken added.
The new academic building will connect with the current Playhouse in the center of the campus, and the proposed general services building will be set back about 150 feet from the school’s property line. The plan also calls for a 6-foot-high vinyl fence separating the college’s property from neighboring homeowner properties.
“We’re well set back from the property line and the neighbors,” said Mitch Ardman, an engineer with the Reynolds Group Inc. representing Rider.
One area resident voiced a complaint during the meeting about a lighting issue in one of WCC’s parking lots.
“My main concern at the moment is doing something about those lights,” said Princeton resident Kenneth Fields, a retired Rider math professor who lives next to WCC. “The residents on Linden Lane cannot look out our rear windows after dark. The situation has gotten worse since the new parking lot was built. There used to be big trees between us and the large lights but now they shine right at our homes.”
When asked if the lights could be turned off or made dimmer at night by timers, Reca stated that the parking lot security cameras are reliant on the brightness of the lights.
However, school officials will work with PSE&G to remove the lights in the spring and phase in new, less bright ones, he added.
“In the short term, we will re-aim these lights or put shrouds on them to deflect the light downward,” he said.
Linden Lane residents would also like to see more trees planted between homeowners’ properties and the school, said Fields. According to the plan, 26 trees will be removed for construction and 29 replacement trees, mostly evergreens, will be added around the new buildings.
Mark Solomon, an attorney who represents Rider, said that the trees are being planted after reviewing the parking lot construction plan with WCC’s neighbors.
“Three years ago, on Feb. 18, the board approved our parking lot application,” said Solomon. “It took us several years to get to construction, and we came to the board last June to present our draft of this construction plan. One comment the board made was to review the plan with the college’s neighbors and we met with them in December.”
University officials added that the project would have no additional impact on area traffic.
However, some residents are still upset with the way the university handled the new construction process.
“I was dismayed that an institution of your stature had such poor communication with its neighbors several years ago,” Gail Ullman, a member of the planning board, told Rider officials at the meeting. “Over the last three years, that has changed considerably. I think the project design is well justified by your program and I think it fits in well with existing architecture.”
The plan also calls for a reconfiguration in existing parking areas near the construction, there will be no new spaces created for the project.
“There will be a new underwater stormwater retention facility and a series of walkways to connect the new buildings to existing ones,” said Lee Solow, the planning director for the Regional Planning Board of Princeton.
College officials plan to start construction on the two new buildings and renovations on the Playhouse sometime in July and hope to have the project completed in time for the fall semester of 2014, said Reca.