Whittier College Finally Settles on Design for Theater Center

Times Staff Writer

After a year of debate, Whittier College officials have settled on a design for the school’s $8-million performing arts center.

In the end, officials in the drama and music departments as well as the administration say they are satisfied with the shape and scope of the long-awaited facility--the largest construction project in the college’s 99-year history.

However, it took almost a year since it was announced last summer to settle on a design for the 30,000-square-foot facility on the campus’ north side. Those planning the arts complex with its two theaters, rehearsal halls, costume and instrument lockers and classrooms, acknowledge that the task of delivering a first-rate facility within the budget was difficult at best.

It also illustrated the difficulty of merging competing interests on a small college campus.


Months of meetings replaced the early optimism for a quick resolution to design dilemmas over acoustics and storage space. The basic problems stemmed from how to accommodate the differing requirements of the music and drama departments.

Efforts Slowed

As a result, efforts to raise the $7 million needed to build and equip the center, and an additional $1 million for the college’s endowment fund to maintain it, have been slow, campus officials said. So far, pledges and donations totaling $3 million have been received, said Jerry Laiblin, the college’s director of development.

Because the college is privately financed, fund raising is the key to the project.


“It’s true we probably would have liked to have been further along at this point,” Laiblin said.

The problem, he explained, was the lack of specific plans for the center.

“A number of major foundations that might contribute to this project simply did not want to commit until we had a specific model,” Laiblin said. “Had that model been available sooner they would have been asked sooner. . . . “

Ruth Shannon, chairwoman of the Performing Arts Center Committee, said the group has set a deadline of December to raise the money to complete the project.


A sign on the corner of Painter Avenue and Philadelphia Street, the site of the theater complex, says the center will be finished by December, 1987.

But Laiblin said the earliest construction will begin is next March, pushing actual completion back until mid-1988.

Start of Discussions

Serious discussions about the performing arts center began four years ago when a group of faculty members and administrators identified the center as a priority as the college approached its centennial celebration.


Since 1968, the liberal arts college has been without an on-campus theater. On Feb. 13 of that year, the college’s oldest building, Founders Hall, burned. Lost in the blaze was Poet Theater where the college held concerts and theatrical productions. As a result, the college’s drama and music departments have used the campus chapel, its faculty center or the Whittier Community Center for performances.

To replace Founders Hall, the college first considered plans for a performing arts center fashioned largely out of glass and steel.

But when the college switched architects on the project a year ago, the look of the facility also changed to incorporate the early California influence of red-tiled roofs and white walls and archways present in other campus buildings.

As various designs were considered, the exterior of the facility was never a problem, said Tim Vreeland, the lead architect on the project for Albert C. Martin and Associates. It was the size and acoustics of the two theaters that put the drama and music departments at odds with each other.


Different Needs

“Drama was looking for a smaller, more intimate space” where the sound of actors’ voices would not echo, said William Wadsworth, the college’s interim dean of faculty. “But music wanted a huge hall for resonance and depth. . . . It was a fundamental engineering problem.”

Initially, the architects proposed building three theaters, but the idea was ruled out as too expensive.

“The decision had been made that $8 million was top of our budget,” Laiblin said.


Once it was clear that only two theaters would be built, Jack de Vires, chairman of the campus drama department, said he was worried that the finished product would not satisfy either department.

“There was concern that in doing a facility for both, it would be adequate for neither,” he said.

Working with a British company, Theatre Projects Consultants, Vreeland believes they have solved the acoustical problem. In the main theater, a 500-seat horseshoe-shaped auditorium with private boxes and a balcony on the second level, a series of rectangular banners will be hung from the ceiling. For drama productions, the banners can be lowered and adjusted to absorb sound and prevent echoing in the Victorian-style theater. During concerts, the banners can be raised to maximize the hall’s acoustics.

Matter of Faith


“We’re just going to have to keep our fingers crossed this works,” said Mary Frances Nobert, chairman of the music department. “But I have faith that it will. . . . “

The second theater is a much smaller, 100-seat playhouse designed for experimental productions. Vreeland said the stage will be moveable, extending out into the audience. Theater-in-the-round performances will also be possible, he said.

“The whole center,” Vreeland said, “was truly born out of conflict. It takes time when creative minds try to reach a consensus.”

The performing arts center still needs city approval. Earlier this year, Vreeland met with City Manager Tom Mauk and several other City Hall officials to discuss specifics of the project. Mauk, a member of the fund-raising team for the center, said he didn’t “see any problems at this point” that would block city approval of the project.


“It looks very promising,” he added.

Among the pledges for the project are a pair of anonymous $1-million gifts. Laiblin said the identity of the donors will be announced at some point in the future. When asked if the donors were alumni, he responded: “All I can say at this time is the individuals are good friends of the college.”

While tapping corporate foundations for money, the college is also trying to raise $1 million from Whittier businesses and residents for the project. As of last week, the college had received pledges totaling $400,000 from Whittier sources.