The College will construct a new performing arts center using funds from the $20 million donation to the College by Herbert Allen, Class of 1962.
Allen’s donation, announced at a local news conferenence, is the largest the College has received. Although construction plans for the new center have not been finalized, the center is expected to be located at the corner of Spring Street and Walden Street.
President of the College Harry C. Payne estimates the building of the center to take a minimum of three years. The College has just begun to identify its set of desires for the center.
After the donation was announced, a committee, chaired by Associate Professor of Theatre David Eppel, began the intial planning for the building. The committee, according to Provost Stuart Crampton, will set out to identify the “programming” and all of the necessary features the building must have. In addition, the College will hold an international competition for the architect of the building, a competition expected to continue through next year.
Allen, CEO of the investment banking firm Allen & Company, cited his appreciation of his Williams education as the primary reason why he donated this sum of money.
“Nobody can ever give back as much as they have taken from Williams,” Allen said. “This contribution doesn’t begin to repay my debt to the school.” According to Beth Raffeld, Director of Principal Gifts Development, Allen has been a longtime friend of the College, specifically Payne.
Allen, involved with Columbia Pictures and other national entertainment organizations, identified the performing arts as one of the areas he was interested in using the donation to promote. Identifying the performing arts as one of its needs alsol, the College decided to use the money to construct the center
This donation “sets a new standard of philanthropy,” Payne said. The $20 million donation is the largest donation ever made to the College, surpassing the $5 million in gifts received for the construction of the WLS Spencer Studio Art Center and the library in the new science center.
“This donation is magnificent,” Raffeld said. ” It is really a contribution to both the school and the community. It is big both on a Williams and national scale.”
The center will have a large effect on the College, especially in the performing arts department.
“This extraordinary, overwhelming gift,” Eppel said, “gives us new ways to teach and develop the performing arts and music.” Eppel said he felt strongly that the new center would allow the department to implement new technologies into the performing arts. “Technologies have advanced to the point where we need new spaces to conduct performing arts.” he said.
In the mind of theater major Deanna Zebillo ’98, the center will allow the drama department to make big changes in lighting and sound. “Our current lighting system in the AMT is pretty out of date, and makes for some very complicated logistical wrangling when lighting a show,” she said. “The new performing arts center will most certainly have a new-style dimmer-per-circuit system, which will just make everything a lot simpler.”
Payne also noted the obvious technological advantages the new center will bring to the College. “[The center] extends our capacities in the performing arts and our facilities very ambitiously.”
Theatre major Adam Bloom ’99 felt that the the increased availablity of spaces created by the new center would lead to greater number of plays and a “revitalization” of the Williams theatre community. “The increase in available performance spaces on campus is certainly welcome. Currier Ballroom and the Tyler Moose Room are fine for some productions, but hardly adaptable beyond a few quickly exhaustable configurations.”
Bloom further speculated that, “The utterly silly ‘avant garde versus popular theater’ debate would simply disappear if there were enough productions available per year to accommodate both.”
The center is likely to have an equal, if not greater effect on Williamstown. The plans for the new center are coinciding with the town planning of the future of Spring Street. The center will extend west from the corner of Walden Street and Spring Street, and could displace The Travel Store and Robyn’s Restaurant. The structure, likely to be horizontal, is expected to blend in with the existing architecture on the street.
The building will necessitate a large plot of land. In addition to the building, estimated to become 60,000-80,000 square feet, addition space is required for landscaping and parking.
Although no specific plans have been finalized, Payne said he feels this initial plan is “do-able.”
The Williamstown Summer Theatre Festival is expected to benefit greatly from the center, which will provide additional space for rehearsals and performances. Presently all summer plays and theatre productions are held in the Adams Memorial Theatre.
Payne expects all plays will show at the center after its construction. Thus, the AMT will be used as a Chapin Hall alternative for various lectures and other productions. Payne said the AMT would provide a good space to house lectures because of its 400-500 people capacity, providing another alternative to Chapin’s 1,000 capacity and Brooks-Rogers 200-300 capacity.
The reaction of town residents is mixed. Roger St. Pierre, owner of St.Pierre’s Barbershop, says he does not know what to think of the center and its relation to his business. He cites this is primarily because of the lack of information the College gave on the new center. His biggest concern is that the center will “monopolize parking on Spring Street.” However, he remains hopeful the project will eventually be beneficial to all of Spring Street and to Williamstown.
“The College must be sensitive to the needs not only of the performing arts center but also to the town and business community,” he said. “$20 million is an awful lot of money. But I’m optimistic that the bright minds at the College will figure out a way to leave opportunities for everybody if it’s done right.”
Despite the potential parking problems, many business owners on Spring Street have little fear of the performing arts center. Robin MacDonald, owner of Robin’s Restaurant on Spring Street, the establishment that may be displaced with the new center, feels that the college will work with the business community as it prepares for the new center.
“The college will include me in their plans,” MacDonald said. “That’s what they do with businesses.”
She points to the building of Chandler Gym ten years ago as evidence, pointing out that the College built new facilities for four of the businesses that had to be displaced as a result of the gym construction.
She, like many others in Williamstown, generally feels that the center will tremendously help the town in general.” I think it’s great that there’s going to be a performing arts center. I think it’s going to be great for our business. Every performing arts center needs a fine restaurant.”