In New York—a city whose symphony is composed of sirens and car horns—quiet rehearsal and recital space for classical musicians is rare, forcing performers to rent venues such as Carnegie Hall. So the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, one of the city’s premier ensembles, sought a space that it could call home, rehearse and record in, and also share with the rest of the classical music community.
With theaters going out of business in recent years, it didn’t take long for the orchestra to find a space with music hall potential: St. Luke’s selected the lower half of a former Off-Broadway multi-theater building in Hell’s Kitchen, and appointed H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture to transform the mostly concrete interiors.
Due to budget constraints, much of the building’s existing concrete was simply cleaned up. This meant the design team would need to strategize on warming up the spaces where musicians spend most time. To that end, they selected red oak wood as the primary enhancing material and counterpoint to the raw concrete, using it for the floors and walls of the center’s two rehearsal rooms—the 3,500-square-foot Mary Flagler Cary Hall and 1,700-square-foot Norman S. Benzaquen Hall.
Cary Hall, situated in the basement level, is the main rehearsal space, as well as a recording studio. Much attention was placed on soundproofing and softening this room. The architects used red oak on floors and walls, as well as for slatted acoustic ceiling panels, essentially wrapping the entire hall in a wood that produces a soothing color when light bounces off of it. Where a fly tower had been in the previous theater, three large new skylights were installed with several layers of glass to keep out street noise, and a film that filters daylight.
A series of four lighting tests were conducted at nearby Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the musicians were asked to practice under each setting and then provide feedback. “Concert hall lights are the Cadillac SUV in terms of energy use,” says Geoff Lynch, partner-in-charge of the project. “Halogens are warm but energy guzzlers, while tungsten halide is an energy sipper.” The four trial settings blended the two lamp types and a happy medium was found that worked for the musicians while keeping energy bills down.
Located on the second level, Benzaquen Hall boasts the same warmth and palette, with slight variations to give it its own character. Walls here are composed of horizontal slats and fabric-backed panels. The drop ceiling is plain sheetrock with large slot apertures, per instruction of the acoustician, allowing 50 percent of the sound to hit the ceiling.
Both of the main rehearsal spaces achieve the concert-hall quality that the Orchestra of St. Luke’s was looking for—acoustically and visually. “In many ways, these rooms are an extension of musicians’ instruments,” says Margaret Sullivan, H3’s director of interiors. “Aesthetics are strong in the psychology of musicians, so the high-quality spaces help elevate their work.”