Assistant Professor of Interior Architecture Markus Berger and his students from RISD’s Masters program in Interior Architecture (Adaptive Reuse) want to broaden our thinking about historic preservation. In a spring studio called past. present. future, they’re exploring the relationship between preservation and design, giving them the opportunity to demonstrate the principles of adaptive reuse and building interventions through a complex design project.
The class is reimagining Newport’s historic Jane Pickens Theater and Events Center, which was designed by well-known Rhode Island architect Russell Warren and originally built as the Zion Episcopal Church in 1834. Located in Washington Square at the heart of the city, the building was one of Newport’s first Greek revival structures. However, its neoclassical façade – with pediment and columns – was lost when it was transformed into a theater in 1919. In 2004 the Staab family bought the property and has continued to operate it as an art-house theater, attracting loyal audiences from throughout New England.
The students are considering the building as their own ‘canvas,’ working to understand its history and context in the city without curtailing their imagination and exploring the full possibilities of creative intervention. The project is made possible by a grant from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, which supports “the structural integrity and appropriate adaptive reuse of key historic properties” on Aquidneck Island and in Newport County for the enjoyment of future generations.
Berger is asking students to intervene in ways that will “allow the building to evolve toward the future.” Working with the theater’s owners and the Jane Pickens Friends group, students are researching the structure, brainstorming ways to expand its commercial uses and creating innovative designs to accommodate these new uses. “Our job is to open everyone’s eyes to what the building could be” while at the same time paying homage to its unique history, says Joe Epstein MA 12, one of the students participating in the studio.
Students are considering various ways of transforming the theater into an entertainment hub that would bring in new audiences and help revitalize the area. Monica Alicea Matos MA 12 proposes to create spaces for a children’s theater workshop during the day and a nightclub that attracts young people in the evening, while Aarti Kathuria MA 12 envisions adding high-end residential units on top of the two-story building. Beatriz Cardona Rivera MA 12 is proposing to restore the neoclassical façade while transforming the interior of the building with the inclusion of extra space above for future programs. “In the past, preservationists would have simply restored the façade” and left it at that, Cardona says. “My design would keep the language of the structure but create a completely new experience once you enter it.”
Implementing the principles of adaptive reuse requires “a different approach to conservation than the traditional understanding of ‘historical preservation’,” Berger points out. “In this studio we ask our students to “explore the relationship between preservation and design. With a full understanding of an existing building’s original purpose we propose new uses and approaches that consider its historic context while focusing on its future. Adaptive reuse brings in new design elements that establish an enhanced relationship between old and new.”
Kathy Staab, owner of the Jane Pickens Theater, recently visited the adaptive reuse class at RISD. “It was exciting to see the variety of creative ideas for the building that students had developed,” she notes. “At the JPT we encourage out-of-the-box thinking as a part of our mission and this partnership with RISD has been an interesting way of expanding the possibilities of what might be.”
On May 25 students will present their final designs to the theater owners, members of the community, developers, preservationists and the press at a gathering at the Jane Pickens Theater and Events Center. The proposals will be on display through May 27 at Newport’s Colony House. Berger expects that the presentation will “engage and continue the conversation on preservation and its potential for Newport and its future. We hope to show the community that preservation and design can come together.”