Town Hall reopens after $35 million overhaul of First Hill’s historic venue

When, almost precisely 13 years ago, the 22-year old cellist Joshua Roman stepped onto the stage of Town Hall, he made local music history. It was Roman’s first solo recital after leaving the Seattle Symphony where he’d been the youngest principal cellist ever.

Tuesday night, Roman will make history again. This time, he’s the first performer to fill Town Hall’s Great Hall with music after it has been closed for a 20-month renovation.

The First Hill cultural and civic venue, a Seattle landmark built as a Christian Science Church about a century ago, reopens Tuesday after an extensive renovation, which included a refresh of the glazed terra cotta exterior, a new roof, seismic retrofit, and much-needed accessibility upgrades.

The overhauled Town Hall was initially set to open in 2018 but complications pushed the opening date back to March and then May of this year. The venue’s certificate of occupancy was cleared just last week. When CHS visited, painters were putting finishing touches on the freshly white-painted window frames, and workers were still busy installing lights in the Great Hall.

Though Town Hall had been hosting some events in its downstairs space since April, the entire building opens tonight during what the nonprofit calls a “soft launch.” The official month-long opening festival Homecoming, originally scheduled for this spring, is now planned to run in September.

Roman’s cello concert wasn’t intended to be Town Hall 2.0’s first performance. Somehow, the stars aligned.

“It’s wonderful,” said Mary Cutler, general manager of Town Hall, sitting on one of the renovated mahogany seating pews in the Great Hall. “Roman is also Town Music [series] Artistic Director,” she added. “It couldn’t be better.”

The $35 million project has been well over six years in the making. The previously unreinforced masonry structure had been due for an upgrade for years, particularly in terms of earthquake-preparedness.

And even though Town Hall had grown into a cultural institution with music performances, author readings, lectures and hundreds of other yearly events with prominent guests, its venue was what it originally was: A 100-year old church. Not a performance center, said design principal Matt Aalfs of BuildingWork, the architecture firm that designed the renovation.

“[People with mobility issues] couldn’t access all parts of the building, there were [substandard] theatrical systems, terrible lighting and there were no toilets” upstairs, or on the lobby-level, Aalfs said.

Now, the lobby level has seventeen brand-new non-gendered restrooms, including two family restrooms. With new acoustic, lighting and audiovisual systems, Aalfs said, Town Hall’s historic venue is finally “a state of the art performance space” with improved accessibility thanks to a new elevator and a new, second entrance on the West side of the building, which acts as a connector between First Hill, Freeway Park and Downtown.

Through a day-lit corridor, the new entrance opens up into the modernized downstairs space now called The Forum. The former church basement didn’t have any notable historical features to protect, so the architects were able to revamp the space completely. “It used to feel like a dark and kind of weird church basement from the fifties,” Aalfs said. “Now it’s a theatrical space, a library, meeting area, a nice bar.” The bar will be open pre- and post-performance for now, but Town Hall says they’re hoping to expand the hours in the future.

Other upgrades, such as narrower stairwells due to walls expanded with stabilizing rebar and concrete, restored stained glass as well as improved acoustics thanks to a custom-built acoustic reflector, are less noticeable at first sight. The seismic retrofitting is deliberately hidden from view throughout the venue, except in the Great Hall, where steel beams curve around tall, stained-glass windows.

Another less visible but critical change: air conditioning. “We used to never produce anything in July and August because it was like a greenhouse in here,” Cutler said. “We’re pretty thrilled to [now] offer our space for year-round programming.”

Originally, the renovations were supposed to take a year, with the reopening planned for 2018, but unforeseen complications delayed the project by around eight more months in total. Most recently, the March opening date had to be pushed back two more months because of problems with applying plaster in the Great Hall and on the second floor, Town Hall said.

“The building was full of surprises,” said Cutler. “Both challenging and fun.”

Finding an early 1923 Morning Oregonian newspaper inside a wall —probably a personal touch from the architect— was fun. Discovering asbestos and a second 80-something-year-old fuel tank in the basement; not so much.

Aalfs said the project was also challenging from a technical perspective, particularly because of its landmark status, which means that all changes need to be approved by the city’s landmarks board.

“Ductwork, lighting, all these systems that take up space, we had to find ways to tuck them and hide them behind existing finishes. It’s like surgery: We had to open up the body and get into the organs and close it back up.”

After 20 months of renovation and a long period of distributing its displaced events around Capitol Hill and beyond, Town Hall will still be somewhat immersed in construction. On the same block, construction workers are busy erecting two 30-story twin towers with 548 units, 6,000 square feet of retail/commercial space and eight levels of below-grade parking. The “Ovation” project, including the planned plaza the tower residents will share with Town Hall patrons, is expected to be completed in 2021. For another two years, visitors entering The Forum through the new downtown-facing entrance will face scaffolding instead of a greenery-filled, paved patio sprinkled with tables and seats.

“We’re in talks about how to use that space in the summertime for programs or concerts, ” said Cutler, who added that food trucks and, depending on the noise level, spoken word performances might also be among the options.

“The plaza will be a really beautiful continuation of the Freeway Park up to First Hill,” Cutler said. “It’s wonderful to have a downtown facing entrance that can be welcoming to people coming up the hill from downtown because it has always felt like you’re coming to the back of something and you’re not sure what it is.” In a couple of years, she added, “we’ll have a second entrance that will someday be equally welcoming.”

Full disclosure: our reporter learned while writing this story that her parents-in-law contributed to Town Hall’s capital campaign. You can find the donor list here.

 

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