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Stakes are High in $68M Renovation of Robinson Center

5 min read

The complexity of renovating Little Rock’s 75-year-old Robinson Center scores 9 on a scale of 10, said David Porter, project manager for the renovation design team.

And, he adds, “The stakes are high.”

The stakes are high because Robinson stands as one of two anchors of the River Market District, serving as sentinel on the district’s west end a little more than a mile from the district’s eastern terminus, the Clinton Presidential Center.

The idea is that as a sentinel goes, so goes the district. The Clinton Center has propelled more than 15 years of development not just of what became the River Market District, but of much of downtown Little Rock. The renewed Robinson Center, at 426 W. Markham St., is seen as having similar impact.

Robinson, however, presents a problem the Clinton Center didn’t. Almost everyone who has ever attended a concert, play or graduation ceremony there — a sizable portion of Arkansas — has a cherished memory of the Art Deco landmark. Porter and his team face the challenge of bringing new life to Robinson while preserving what people loved about it.

“The stakes are high because of the importance of this project to everyone,” Porter said. “It’s a little different than doing a corporate office for a corporation.”

The public, in effect, is the client, and the designers face the challenge of restoring “a building that has been an icon of Little Rock for 75 years,” he said. “This project intends to take it another 75 years.”

Porter is a principal of the architecture firm heavily involved with both downtown Little Rock anchors, Polk Stanley Wilcox. Polk Stanley partnered with Polshek Partnership on the Clinton Center and is now working with Ennead Architects of New York, the successor firm to Polshek, on the $68 million Robinson renovation.

“We always knew that the Clinton Center would be a game-changer for Little Rock,” Porter said. “We think Robinson represents the same kind of game-changer in terms of what it’s going to stimulate on this end of the street.”

Reese Rowland, another Polk Stanley principal, went so far as to say the renovation would result in a venue that will “change the face of performance in Little Rock.”

Porter wasn’t quite ready to make that claim but he did say his fellow architects were committed to providing “the people of Little Rock and Arkansas with a performance experience equal to anywhere they could go in the country.”

Many Purposes, Problems

And in that goal lies much of the complexity of the project. Robinson Center is a multipurpose venue. It must accommodate the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Broadway plays, Ballet Arkansas and commencement ceremonies — in addition to conventions and conferences — and each of these has different and sometimes even opposite technical requirements, particularly acoustical requirements.

That’s why CDI Contractors of Little Rock has partnered with Hunt Construction Group of Dallas to serve as general contractors and construction managers. Hunt Construction has experience with performing arts buildings, as does Polk Stanley’s partner, Polshek-now-Ennead, which led the restoration of New York’s Carnegie Hall.

The center closed to the public last month and demolition began after the July Fourth holiday.

Last week as workman clambered over scaffolding erected where once the orchestra seats had been and the deafening clang of construction forced conversation into the upper decibels, Porter described how the crew planned to remove the concrete floor and drop it 36 feet to the level of La Harpe Boulevard.

This creates more volume in the performance hall, which has had only about half the volume it needed to provide optimum acoustics for events like musical performances. But for “amplified performances,” like plays, a “dead room” is optimal, one that deadens sound. To accomplish that, almost 10,000 SF of movable sound-absorbing curtains will be installed above the performance hall.

“It’s sort of a tricky thing,” Porter said. “People who’ve gone to Robinson forever think they’ve had a fantastic experience. And they have. But for the shows that come here to play, it’s not as good as an experience for them. They would rank old Robinson very low compared to halls they’ve played elsewhere.”

“It’s one of those cases where we don’t know what we’re missing until we see something that’s really improved,” he said. “And that’s what’s going to happen from a performance standpoint.”

But removing the hall’s concrete floor presents another set of challenges: The floor currently serves to help brace the walls.

“Taking this floor out, which in some respects braces these sidewalls, is a tricky thing,” Porter said. Big steel columns will be dropped in along the existing columns of the sidewalls, columns that extend down to the ground and up to the roof, “so that there’s a tie structurally from top to bottom so that now you can take this concrete floor out.”

“It’s a tricky proposition just to do the demolition,” he said. “That’s another complexity over and above a normal demolition project.”

Five Goals

The Robinson Center renovation, which will take the building from 133,500 SF to 138,000 SF, includes much more than a rebuilt and improved performance hall.

  • The conference center will also be upgraded, an upgrade that includes a new grand ballroom that opens the north wall of the center to the river with floor-to-ceiling windows.
  • Expanded lobbies and public spaces.
  • And what are called “back of house” improvements, including greater loading capacity and larger staging areas for performers and sets.

Ultimately, Porter said, the Robinson renovation has five goals:

1. Improve the performance hall from an acoustical and theatrical perspective.

2. Improve the patron experience. This includes the lobby improvements and accessibility on the west side of the building.

3. Improve the functionality of the back of house facilities.

4. Upgrade all the mechanical and electrical systems.

5. Improve the conference center.

The Clinton Center, which opened 10 years ago, presented problems too, and no one would now argue that it’s not highly successful. It’s hosted millions of visitors and the building itself won the 2006 Institute Honor Award for Architecture from the American Institute of Architects.

The new Robinson Center is scheduled to open in the fall of 2016. The renovation “is a once-in-a-career project,” Porter said. “For us, it’s a landmark project in our career and we’ve had a lot of wonderful projects.”

Robinson Renovation Participants
Little Rock Firms

  • Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects
  • Engineering Consultants, Structural Engineers
  • TME Inc., Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing Engineers
  • McClelland Engineers, Civil Engineers
  • Landscape Architecture Inc., Landscape Design

Other Design Team Partners

  • Ennead Architects, New York, Architectural Design
  • Jaffe Holden, Acoustical Design, Norwalk, Connecticut
  • Schuler Shook, Theatrical Design, Dallas
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