Princeton University opens Lewis Arts Complex

For several years, a construction fence barricaded the area opposite Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center — it was an ugly sight that generated trash and debris and created complications for pedestrians getting to the theater or generally crossing that area of the Princeton University campus.

Plus there was a brouhaha over the relocation of the Dinky train station — moving it 400 feet away from the center of town led to angst and lawsuits from public transportation advocates.

That was then and, as the saying goes, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Now that the construction fence is gone, and the Lewis Arts Complex is open, pedestrians walking along the new Blair pathway can see what immense sense the design makes, and how it connects the arts district to the campus with new design features.

Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts and the Department of Music will celebrate the opening of the new Lewis Arts complex with a Festival of the Arts Oct. 5 through 8 on the Princeton campus. The festival, which is open to the public, will feature dozens of concerts, plays, readings, dance performances, art exhibitions, multidisciplinary presentations, community workshops and site-specific events, most of which will be free.

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A walking tour of campus sculpture will showcase music composed for each piece; and the Princeton Poetry Festival — organized by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Muldoon — will run for two days; and there will be lighting designs by Jane Cox and a performance of “The Wave Fanfare” by the Princeton Laptop Orchestra. 

The complex includes public plazas and a reflecting pool, new and improved access to the Dinky train, two new restaurants from the adaptively reused Dinky station buildings, a Wawa and three world-class buildings for the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Department of Music. It serves as an attractive gateway to the Princeton area as well as to the University.

Designed by Steven Holl Architects, the three buildings are connected by an underground “Forum” where students from dance, music and theater can collaborate. The forum is actually underneath the reflecting pool — skylights from the forum look up into the water. And, yes, the public can enjoy this space as well.

Proportions of the new buildings are in scale with existing parts of the campus, such as Blair Arch and Alexander Hall, Steven Holl points out in a video by Jon Roemer, and they have the same sense of timeless design as existing buildings, according to university architect Ronald J. McCoy. An exhibition of Holl’s watercolor renderings will be on view in the forum Sept. 15 through Oct. 1, and Holl will give a talk on the first day of the festival.

The buildings, sustainably designed to the highest standards with a green roof and geothermal heating system, are made from fossilized limestone from a quarry in Italy that has been mined for more than 2,000 years. Windows have been carefully sited to provide views of the tree-lined campus. The end-cut wood floors are as durable as old-time factory floors, and a winding, spiraling “dancing” staircase that leads to an oculus at the top is like a work of sculpture.

The rooms in the music building are suspended to be acoustically isolated and contain brand-new Steinways of various sizes and models, ranging in price from $7,000 to $150,000, according to Music Department Production Manager Henry Valoris. Just under 60 pianos were purchased.

“We made four trips into the New York Steinway studios to find the Steinway Ds we liked.” The Steinway D is a concert grand, and each instrument produces a unique sound.

The studio walls are cherry, and each room has a recording system. There are five dance studios, five theater studios and several of these can be used for performances open to the public with telescoping stadium seating and LED theatrical light that can be programmed to change color. (It helps to have lighting designer Jane Cox at the helm of the department.) One rehearsal studio is the size of the Berlind stage, part of McCarter Theatre Center across the street.

A large gallery with modular sliding walls will feature changing exhibitions. At the opening festival, “24-Hour Psycho” is a slowed down version of the Hitchcock classic movie. It starts one hour later each day, so if you view it at the same hour every day, over the 24-day run you will have seen the entire film.

Made possible by a gift from Peter B. Lewis, Class of 1955, the Lewis Arts Complex — formerly titled the Arts and Transit District — cost in the range of $300 million, according to Lewis Center Communications Director Steve Runk. It will eventually include a site-specific work by sculptor Maya Lin.

The Lewis Center’s creative writing department is located in a nearby building, and the visual arts department will remain in the Lewis Center’s former home at 185 Nassau St. Runk estimates it’s less than a 10-minute walk to the new center.

Princeton University students can major in music or earn a certificate in theater, dance, visual arts, creative writing or musical theater. A certificate is the equivalent or better than a major, Runk points out. “This kind of work would ordinarily be at the graduate level — for example, writing a collection of poems or a novel with Princeton faculty (and U.S. Poet Laureate) Tracy K. Smith or Jeffrey Eugenides. The student may come out better, marrying the arts with a major in, say, physics. By design, the certificate enables students to pursue arts while earning a liberal arts degree. Our students go into professional theater, filmmaking, visual arts and become novelists.”


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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