Middlesex Community College Academic Arts Center Lights Up Downtown Urban Historic Area

Words: Ashley Johnson 
Photos: Robert Benson, Leers Weinzapfel Associates Architects, Consigli Construction, City of Lowell, MA  

The town of Lowell, MA, was founded in the 1820s as a mill town and became known as the cradle for the American Industrial Revolution because of its textile mills and factories. Many historical manufacturing buildings were preserved and created into the Lowell National Historical Park. One of those historic buildings was the 1876 Boston and Maine Railroad Depot located in the downtown area of the city.   

Today that historic, 140-year-old train depot is the new Richard and Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center for the Middlesex Community College in downtown Lowell, which opened its doors in 2018. In renovating the building, there is a marriage of timeless historic masonry artistry with modern architectural details and techniques. The finished masterpiece serves as a gateway to the city in providing a home to the arts for the community college, as well as reinforcing the city’s focus on preserving and promoting its historical roots.   

The Victorian Gothic-style building initially served as a shoe mill before being converted into a train depot. Over its 140-year history, the train depot took on many new roles and functions. It first served as the Owl Theater, and from 1921 to the 1960s, the building served as the Rialto Theater lobby. Before the train depot was saved, it was abandoned as a bowling alley. In 1989, the building was saved from being demolished by the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission. The exterior of the building was renovated by the Lowell National Historical Park and ownership transferred in 2008 ownership to Middlesex Community College.    

The architect firm Leers Weinzapfel Associates of Boston, MA., was chosen to renovate the historically significant building that embodies the spirit of the town and achieves the aspirations of the students and faculty who now call it home.     

Before the students and faculty took ownership of the performing arts center, they frequently moved about the community college campus in search of permanent residency. One year the arts program was organized from a second-floor building, while another year the program ran out of a warehouse. Now both students and faculty permanently call home to a 20,000 square foot “egg” theater.  

The city of Lowell is dedicated to preserving its history and the buildings that make up that history. A large area of the city’s downtown section has been turned into the Lowell National Historic Park as part of its renewed urban core. The goal of renovating the train depot was to transform it from an already deteriorated space into a modern performing arts center that would stand for another 140 years.     

For this reason, Leers Weinzapfel Associates’ retained the eyes and ears of a number of valuable individuals that helped by offering input and expertise for restoring the facade. The architects worked carefully and meticulously with a preservationist, contractor, and masons to make sure any detail that was reconstructed and restored was as close as possible to the original.   

A major challenge in undertaking this renovation was to preserve the integrity of the original structure and materials without compromising on the design. The firm achieved this by clearing out the interior of the train depot and constructing a concrete block egg structure that was inserted into the shell of the train depot.   

In creating this design, a new basement was excavated and constructed on bedrock that includes a new wing in the back of the building that houses mechanical and support spaces. These two additions almost double the space available for use by the college’s art department.  

This egg-shaped structural core is separated into different spaces that include a proscenium theater, music recital hall, and a dance studio. This construction required extremely competent masonry work and fine carpentry to make it the jewel that it ultimately has become. The egg core is comprised of a continuous ring of heavily reinforced 10-inch concrete masonry with spanning beams that support the facade. The outside of the egg-shaped core is covered in maple veneer panels  

“The structural core is an architectural idea and in some ways a metaphor for the building,” said Leers Weinzapfel Associates Principal Josiah Stevenson, FAIA, LEED, BD+C. “The second floor of the building is a recital hall. The entrance is within the curve of the egg.”  

The spaces confined inside the core include a 177-seat theater that steps down from the ground floor lobby to a basement level. The second floor houses the 103-seat recital hall and 900 square foot dance studio that benefit from the elevated roof, its exposed timber trusses, and light from a west-facing passageway.  

“It’s evocative of what’s happening inside, not only because it’s a performing space but as a referential piece to one of this building’s past lives as the Rialto Theater and the Owl Theater for a time,” said Associate Kevin Bell, AIA of Leers Weinzapfel Associates.  

The egg structure in the center of the building is surrounded by four towers. The historic entry tower allows admission to the building by way of a stair tower. There is also a modern tower with an elevator. The back of the building is a state-of-the-art addition consisting of metal cladding and mesh with simple and modern images on the mesh screens.  

Despite one part of the building that had to be rebuilt, the majority of the original masonry was kept intact. The project did experience its share of challenges in keeping with the original masonry. When entering the shell you can see triple wythe brick wall on the outside with missing mortar. This required propping up the outer walls structurally and restoring that part of the wall with missing mortar.   

 Another challenge came with including matching the brick. The mortar spacing on the original masonry was about a quarter inch thick or less. This made it hard to match because there was one spot where they both came face to face.    

“We wanted to restore this façade with mortar and brick that is compatible with the original material,” said Leers Weinzapfel Associates Principal Josiah Stevenson, FAIA, LEED, BD+C. “The original brick was incredibly strong but soft; it gives a little without breaking.”  

Despite the challenges and the commitment to preserving as much of the original detailing as possible, the end result is a testament to the vision and passion with which the firm set out to accomplish. 

Light is a recurring theme throughout the entire building from the performance spaces where it acts equally as a teaching tool as well as integrated building equipment. The traditional house light is transformed into a cutting-edge theatrical lighting element through individual color changing light nodes.  

The theme of elevated, modern, integrative lighting continues into the lobby where LED signage panels reside. These panels act as informational kiosks that can also display student-generated content. The building towers and maple clad “egg” can be highlighted with color changing wall-washing light that runs different scenes that vary on time of day or event.   

The firm’s dedication to sustainability, as well as the city’s, can be seen in the building itself. It started as an abandoned, unusable building yet was transformed into a pedestrian-friendly urban center close to public transportation. Existing building materials were reused. New building materials were recycled. Water saving technologies have been implemented, as well as high-efficiency equipment and automated controls that reduce energy use.     

Where there once stood an empty, abandoned, deteriorating train depot now stands a modern, state-of-the-art, vibrant hub that serves not just the students and faculty of Middlesex Community College, but also the city itself.