Quinn Evans renews Pope’s Constitution Hall for another century of concerts

Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) have been architectural patrons in Washington, D.C. since 1905 when Edward Pearce Casey’s design for their Memorial Continental Hall was completed one block north of the National Mall. Locals know its central meeting space, genealogy library, and museum from DAR’s annual open house, and for almost 120 years, Memorial Continental Hall has been the center of the organization’s activities, debates, and votes. 

Locals also know the adjacent Constitution Hall, designed by John Russell Pope in 1924 and completed in 1930, as the scene of hundreds of concerts, comedy shows, military band performances, and upwards of 40 graduations each year for area schools. Its National Register nomination notes its original purpose for DAR’s annual congress was surpassed soon after it opened by its new status as the “unofficial cultural center for the Nation’s Capital.”  Even today, if you live within 50 miles of it, you’ve probably been there at least once to enjoy something from one its 3,702 seats (making it the largest concert hall in the District). 

Once powered by the sun, the existing laylight has been retrofitted with 972 LED lights manufactured by Folio in Brescia, Italy, which use a small amount of electricity while providing the soft, diffused luminescence the hall requires.

Quinn Evans worked with DAR for more than 10 years to restore and refresh elements of Memorial Continental Hall and Administration Building and, starting with a 2014 feasibility study, Constitution Hall. The team restored the U-shaped lobby and upgraded its mechanical systems, restored the stage area, and restored and upgraded the auditorium, itself, including structural reinforcements, safety measures for riggers above, and basement and backstage dressing rooms for visiting acts that might host a church choral group from Cincinnati one day and Bob Dylan the next and then Tina Fey and Amy Pohler the week after.

Pope’s edifice is striking for its perfect Neoclassical temple front that rises above 18th Street. The drama of approaching from the south at an oblique angle is heightened by the road’s gentle elevation change and the facade offers a strong counterpoint to the stripped down Classicism of the Department of the Interior’s flank across the street. The drama that most will remember, however, is inside the main hall as part of a $18 million restoration by Quinn Evans, earning it a 2022 Award of Honor for Historic Preservation by AIA Virginia.

“The goal was to be as accurate as we could be in the restoration, but also provide the kind of flexibility that contemporary performances need,” says Katie Irwin, AIA, a senior associate at Quinn Evans and project manager for the Constitution Hall renovation. “The client’s values really aligned with Quinn Evans’ values in the work we do and in terms of wanting to be great stewards of historic properties.”

As part of the hall’s upgrade, Quinn Evans was able to stash a fully accessible platform for riggers to hoist lights and speakers above the laylight. Courtesy Quinn Evans

Perhaps the most noticeable difference for concertgoers who’ve been attending shows there for the last 20 years will be the resurfaced coved ceiling, which gently meets the flanking walls of the auditorium. It was rebuilt and resurfaced to gently bounce uplighting while also focusing the eye along its lines towards the stage. It also frames the laylight in the center of the ceiling that’s been framed by a grid. Once powered by the sun, the existing laylight has been retrofitted with 972 LED lights manufactured by Folio in Brescia, Italy, which use a small amount of electricity while providing the soft, diffused luminescence the hall requires. As part of the hall’s upgrade, Quinn Evans was able to stash a fully accessible platform for riggers to hoist lights and speakers above the laylight. The added bonus of using LEDs is that lighting technicians can adjust it to suit different moods, as the performer on stage or the event requires. 

“It’s a complex system that has a daylight mode and a starlight mode, so it can twinkle, too,” says Anne Kopf, AIA, an Associate at Quinn Evans and project architect who led construction administration on-site and managed the design and engineering teams on the project.

To that end, there are a few other theaters in town of the same vintage that are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Warner Theater opened in 1924 (as the Earle Theater) has a capacity that’s about half of Constitution Hall’s, and remains a popular venue for artists as diverse as P.J. Harvey and Animal Collective, the horror film director/composer John Carpenter, or–this month–a mariachi band from Tecalitlán, Mexico. There’s also the Avalon in Chevy Chase, which opened in 1922 with an original capacity of 1,200 (today, as a cinema, it’s closer to 450), and continues its centenary celebration this year with the latest Wes Anderson film and a documentary about Vermeer. 

DAR’s Constitution Hall is a different caliber, though, whose exterior makes most (if not all) of the lists of notable architecture in the city, but whose auditorium is on par with the Kennedy Center or Carnegie Hall. “You don’t have a space like this anywhere else in DC,” says Kopf, “and it’s a major draw to attend shows, but the space itself—the restoration—is part of the draw.”

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.

Project credits:

Architecture Firm: Quinn Evans

Owner: Daughters of the American Revolution (Stephen Nordholt, Representative)

General Contractor: The Christman Company

MEP Engineering:  Greenman Pedersen Inc. and Loring Consulting Engineers

Historic Paint Finishes Specialist: Artifex Ltd.

Structural Engineer: 1200 Architectural Engineers

Theatrical Lighting and Theater Planning: Schuler Shook

Lighting Design (Phase 1 – Lobby): Gary Steffy Lighting Design

Acoustical Consulting: Jaffee Holden

Life Safety Engineering: GHD

Stage Mural Recreation: Holly Highfill

Photographer: Ron Blunt Photography

How viable is sustainability for downtowns and design budgets?  

The focus today on adaptive reuse as a strategy for decarbonization is still subject to the economics of running an architecture firm and contingent on market forces and their players like developers, investors, owners, and operators. Commonwealth Architects Principal Lee Shadbolt, AIA, and Principal Emeritus Robert Burns, AIA, say that the value proposition of adapting an old building for new uses remains strong for their clients who are “bottom-line oriented,” but in approaching the question of embodied and operational carbon, they say, “you have to think about the quality of the existing building stock that’s left, which is different across Virginia. There’s not a single solution.”

At this point, and considering the digital tools to evaluate existing building stock, how would you say adaptive reuse has changed over the last decade

Lee Shadbolt: The adaptive reuse projects that were near the central business district in any town and any city—if they were a good project, they were probably already done about 10 years ago. The good projects downtown are done. Now we’re seeing another set of buildings coming up that have reached their 50-year threshold for historic tax credits, and they’re not old like we think of as historic architecture—they’re Modern architecture. They present another set of rules, especially for our firm, for another set of different materials. 

How are you talking to clients about the material realities—meaning the literal performance of materials—of projects that are 50 years old versus 100 years old, say?

Robert Burns: A lot of our clients tend to be bottom-line folks—especially if they’re developers. In terms of materials, it’s the same discussion for those younger buildings as it is for older ones—what can we do to extend the life of certain materials? When is it more cost effective to replace something? What do you replace it with? In some of our historic work where we are inserting contemporary fabric, we make it clear what’s new and what’s historic. 

Lee: It really depends on the situation. We have one job now where we’re looking to convert an office tower into a hotel. The hotel chain came back and said they wanted to replace the old, single-pane windows. We said we can’t do that—they are the “contributing factors” and historic characteristics. We have another job with a curtain wall, which is in good shape, and we’re just going to add another pane of glass. There’s a third case, which was an old warehouse—a manufacturing plant for tobacco—and the windows had been replaced with glass blocks 30 years ago. So, we went in and put back steel-sash windows, which were the original windows before the glass blocks.

How does Commonwealth Architects see trends unfolding across Virginia for existing buildings, especially considering the pressures of climate change in such an ecologically diverse state?

Lee: We’ve seen, in the Tidewater region, the demolishing of a lot of historic buildings rather than adaptively using them. Petersburg has the best building stock in the state, but building new things there isn’t economically viable. Richmond? If there was low-hanging fruit in the past, in terms of readily and easily renovating or restoring an old building, it’s been done. Danville, Lynchburg, and so on—all different stories—but it’s been done there and there’s not a lot left to work with and the days when you could buy an old warehouse for $25 a square foot and convert it are gone.

Robert: Our cost-conscious clients seem to be a lot more interested in the energy efficiency of their buildings than they used to be, especially since a lot of the costs of certification for LEED and others have come down. Before the rise of a lot of the energy efficiency focus, they could care less—it was always about first-cost—but we are seeing a lot more owner-operators now, too, who are a lot more interest in energy efficiency. 

Lee: We always ask a question of our owner-operators about their future tenants about how they think the upfront energy upgrades would cost them in five years, and then they always discover that it’s only a few more dollars a month. So, that’s satisfying to make that argument early and succeed. It sets the tone for the whole project. 

Robert: As the demographic of downtown residents has trended younger and younger, I find that they’re interested in the greenness of a building. Richmond is talking now about doing away with required parking for downtown condominiums and apartments, primarily because their residents don’t drive cars. Now, that can be argued in a lot of ways, but it’s undeniable that the people who move downtown now are interested in sustainable design. Developers are smart and if they know that, they’ll start to leverage it. 

Lee: We’re getting closer—and the threshold is lower to get over now to send a message that sustainability is viable. With multi-family, you’re getting younger folks, but you’re getting empty-nester baby boomers, too. I was recently in a seminar when someone on the panel said, “The thing you can do to live longer is to be around people and be engaged.” That’s the opposite of moving to a golf course community or moving to the mountains away from people. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.

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