ASO Says Music Center Will Enrich East Village

ASO Says Music Center Will Enrich East Village
A rendering of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra's $9 million, 20,000-SF Stella Boyle Smith Music Center in Little Rock's East Village. (WER Architects/Planners)

WER Architects/Planners is looking forward to making the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s planned $9 million, 20,000-SF music center in Little Rock’s East Village neighborhood sing, pun intended.

“This is a very specific and unique facility. … You feel like you’re working with something that can really make an impact in that community, and I think this will help the whole east end of town and add some synergy to what’s going on down there with Heifer and the Clinton Library and the eStem school and other things,” David Sargent, principal and CEO, told Arkansas Business last week.

The Stella Boyle Smith Music Center will sit at the southeast corner of Third Street and World Avenue, an area familiar to WER. The Little Rock firm worked on the nearby Clinton Library, eStem East Village Elementary School and Lost Forty Brewing, all within a few blocks of the building site, which owner Heifer International will lease to the ASO.

Sargent said the biggest challenge is designing an affordable, simple and elegant building where money is spent on the most important features: rooms where music will be taught and played.

Those rooms will not only need good acoustics. They must also be acoustically isolated so sound doesn’t carry to other parts of the building, he said. Acoustical engineer Talaske Group Inc. of Chicago will be consulting on the project.

Sargent said the center’s exterior will be made of built-up concrete walls, which workers cast on site and lift into place. The economical design allows the walls to be load-bearing and serve as the finishing, he said. The floors will consist of polished concrete.

Music spaces will have wood paneling to mimic the instruments played there, adding to aesthetics and acoustics, he said. The offices will be designed economically, too, with furniture that allows for expansion and modification.

The firm has done about 30% of the work it expects to do on the project, which will require a team of 25-30 people including subcontractors, he said.

ASO is raising money for the project now. So far, it’s raised $5.4 million. ASO CEO Christina Littlejohn said the nonprofit hopes to raise the rest by February or March 2023 and has been told construction could take 12-18 months.

Pent-up Demand

The ASO has been seeking a new home for years, having outgrown the 7,000-SF space it rents from the Diocese of Little Rock, Littlejohn said. The ASO established its Sturgis Music Academy, for ages 4-18, five years ago.

“It truly was a case of ‘If you build it, they will come,’” she said. At the diocese, individual lessons are taught in offices and even storage rooms, she said, while rehearsals have been forced outside, because there was literally no room left inside.

“We can’t meet what was already pent-up demand here, and we’d really like to be able to grow the programs,” Littlejohn said. She attributes the academy’s growth to the state lacking a tradition of string instrument instruction in public schools, which offer brass and percussion instruction, i.e., band class.

The ASO serves more than 1,000 children and adults now, she said. The new center could serve double or triple that.

Littlejohn envisions many functions for the new center, from hosting afternoon and evening gatherings to attracting additional professional musicians to teach and perform. The center could also be a field trip and tourist destination.

It won’t replace the Robinson Center as a full-ASO performance venue, but, she said, patrons who get to know musicians on a more personal level at smaller music center events will be more likely to attend Robinson Center concerts.

Littlejohn thinks the center will showcase the 55-year-old ASO as a permanent fixture of the community. It “will remind people and reassure people that we’ll be here for another 55 years,” she said.