Campus News

Memorial Hall and Wish Theater Dedicated Friday, May 12

Story posted May 11, 2000

Bowdoin dedicates one of its most ambitious and arduous construction projects to date on May 12: the complete renovation and reconfiguration of a Civil War memorial-turned-theater, with the addition of an experimental theater that is largely subterranean.

With the help of architects Grieves Worrall Wright and O’Hatnick of Baltimore, Bowdoin has solved a problem that plagues each construction project it undertakes: Preserving the traditional architectural beauty of a 200-year-old institution while at the same time creating state-of-the-art facilities.

Bowdoin’s problem is not limited just to the scale and design of the buildings themselves, but also their placement around the Historic Quad and within the town itself. Memorial Hall presented the most complex set of issues to date.

The granite block structure originally was built between 1867 and 1882 as a Civil War Memorial housing classrooms and a large meeting hall.

In 1952, Memorial Hall was renovated to include the 610-seat Pickard Theater. For the past 40 years, it has served as the home of the Maine State Music Theatre and a variety of Bowdoin productions.

The old Memorial Hall had no air conditioning or access for the disabled, both of which are essential when serving a 21st-Century audience. It also lacked the space and amenities necessary for the Music Theatre and the College’s growing Theater and Dance Department.

The solution: Gut the 18,000-square-foot Memorial Hall down to its 2-foot-thick granite walls -- which meant inserting new structural steel supports and framing -- and add an experimental theater of equal size. The cost: About $10.5 million, funded in part by a $750,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation and a $5.2 million gift from Bowdoin alumnus Barry Wish and his wife, Oblio.

The new Pickard Theater seats the same number of patrons but in a different configuration, with the addition of one balcony in the rear and two on the sides. The ground floor contains rehearsal space, dressing rooms bathrooms and a scene shop. The third floor houses offices and a dance rehearsal space.

The new Wish Theater building is a single-story addition to Memorial Hall, sheathed in dark green glass with a stone-like base and topped by a lead-coated, copper-hipped roof. The 150-seat theater is entirely below grade. Connecting the two buildings is a two-story, glass-enclosed atrium that serves as an entrance to both theaters. A three-story glass-enclosed tower contains an elevator and stairwell making all levels of Memorial Hall accessible to the disabled for the first time in the building’s history.

Most strikingly, the Wish Theater was constructed at a 45-degree angle to Memorial Hall, pointing away from the Quad and toward the main intersection marking the beginning of campus. This orientation serves two purposes: It emphasizes the theater’s position in the community by approaching the corner and welcoming the public onto the campus. And it provides a lighted space to advertise theater productions and draw people into what had been a dark and imposing space.

At the same time, it does not detract from the view of Memorial Hall from the Quad, an open space designed with particular care given not only to the buildings but to the spaces between them. If the addition had been built as a perpendicular ell off of Memorial Hall, it would have overwhelmed the original structure and filled in a critical open space in the corner of campus.

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