Three decades of planning by the arts, civic, and business leaders in Edmonds, WA, culminated at the end of this past September with the completion of the Edmonds Center for the Arts (ECA). The $18.5 million renovation and remodeling project transformed a 1939 New Deal building — the area's first high school — into a performing arts center with a 700-seat theatre and concert hall.

A very ambitious undertaking for a city of 40,000 (located 15 miles north of Seattle on Puget Sound), known for its active arts community, ECA was planned with community performing arts institutions in mind: Olympic Ballet Theatre, Cascade Symphony Orchestra, Sno-King Community Chorale, and Edmonds Community College. All have scheduled performances at the center in its inaugural season, but the performance schedule also includes national acts, ranging from classical chamber ensembles to comedy, jazz, and pop.

Transforming what was essentially a high school auditorium into a theatre and concert hall was the work of numerous expert firms: Seattle's LMN Architects, acoustic and sound system design firm JaffeHolden, theatrical consultants Ward Design Group Inc., and systems installation firm Dimensional Communications Inc.

LMN retained the curved exterior of the auditorium's Art Moderne styling, along with original windows, but the foyer was opened up. Bright colors and silver trim were added to highlight architectural features, and the theatre itself was reshaped, narrowed by trimming 200 wood seats.

“We reshaped the throat walls to improve the early reflections in the hall,” says JaffeHolden acoustic designer and project manager Robin Glosemeyer from the company's Santa Monica, CA, office. “The addition of upper- and lower-level box seating areas and reshaping the throat walls at the proscenium allowed us to create useful reflecting surfaces as opposed to the negative, concave surfaces of the original room that were causing focusing problems.” Early reflections of sound increase clarity and the listener's sense of intimacy with the music and the sense of being in the same room with the performers.

The original rear wall of the theatre on the orchestra level was concave in relation to the stage. This surface caused late reflections, or echoes, that distracted and confused performers. The rear wall was altered, slanted inward from the under balcony to the floor, thereby focusing reflected sound into the seating area.

The existing plaster ceiling was removed, exposing the wood roof deck to increase the volume of the room for unamplified music. “Volume in a room allows unamplified sound to bloom,” explains Glosemeyer. Volume adds reverberation time and makes unamplified sound more warm and full. However, increasing volume and reverberation time can be detrimental to amplified sound. “The more volume in a room, the more reverberation time. The more reflective surfaces, the less absorption and the longer the reverberation time,” the acoustician adds.

Having added volume to the hall for unamplified sound, Glosemeyer had to tame the room for amplified sound by adding more absorption. The solution was a system of adjustable acoustic draperies, suspended in the upper level of the room at the catwalks and along the sidewalls at the balcony level. The variable draperies are used during amplified performances to cut down on reverberation and reflected sound, adjusting reverb time (RT) from one second for amplified programs to 1.6 seconds for chamber music and small orchestral ensembles. Theatre consultants Ward Design Group determined the location of the catwalks. Glosemeyer made the catwalks do double-duty by incorporating acoustic reflector panels on the underside of the structure that direct more early-arriving sound reflections back down into the listening space.

Sound System

JaffeHolden's sound system design for the hall (begun by Howard Rose and seen to completion by David W. Robb) included audio and video infrastructure; all backstage, lobby and paging systems; intercom, ADA-compliant assisted listening; and FOH and monitor systems.

Selection of the house mains system, nearly three years before the center opened, was an act of informed guesswork by systems designer Robb. “At the time, there was no one with the project who could speak from a programming point of view about how the hall would be used,” he says. “The project leaders were focused on seeing this building become a performing arts center. For events, they could count only current uses, such as travelogue lectures, as certain.” Robb specified a system that would support much more than slide shows and lectures.

The house mains is a left, right, center cluster system comprising three EAW MK 2364 loudspeakers for center cluster, top tier; two EAW MK2364s for side clusters, top tier; two EAW MK2394s for side clusters, bottom tier; and two portable EAW subwoofers. All are powered by Crown amps.

For the orchestra and balcony-level side box areas, delay speakers were part of the original design but were almost lost to budget considerations. “We selected two rows, one that sat just forward of the actual balcony itself and shot down into the front half of the balcony, and another smaller row that shot back into the upper-right and -left corners of the balcony,” Robb says. “And along each sidewall, the box seats needed some extra fill.”

When the project was ready for bidding to begin, the speakers for these positions were moved to the add/alternate list, awaiting further funding, where they remained. However, Robb made certain that the infrastructure to support these speakers became part of the final spec.

The delay system was, in the final hours, rescued. But it took the demise of another sub-system to do it — seven front-fill speakers that were to have run along the stage-edge. Architectural changes in the course of the project grew the orchestra pit so that the whole dynamic of the front-fill system changed. “You simply couldn't walk between the front-row seats and the orchestra pit if the speakers were put in place,” says ECA technical director Jeff Vaughn. And the speakers would have played directly into the faces of front-row patrons.

During the tuning of the hall, Vaughn consulted with Robb on the problem. “Since it didn't look like we were going to be able to use these speakers, and we had the amplification and the processing for them,” says Robb, “I thought, ‘Why don't we press these into service in side boxes and the over balcony?’” A quick test of the idea with one speaker in the balcony made a “wonderful difference,” according to Robb.

The other front-fill speakers — four in the balcony and one for each side box — were relocated with a special yoke fashioned by the head carpenter, and EQ, level, and delay dialed in. The result: a greatly improved listening experience for the people in the balcony and side boxes.

FOH Console

The FOH audio console is a digital Yamaha M7CL-48, a choice championed by Vaughn. “The original spec called for an analog console,” he says, “but that was nearly three years before we opened when no one had any idea what sort of events we'd program — beyond what we hosted pre-renovation.” By the time Vaughn joined ECA in August 2006, the situation had changed. “Knowing the type and range of events booked into the facility — 250 in the first season — the ability to save scenes and the benefits of being able to insert onboard processing in groups was something I didn't think we could be without.”

Vaughn had demo'd the M7CL for a special event while working at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, but his primary audio operator had not worked with a digital console before. “I spent some time with the console and so did my operator, who has a background in musical theatre and music production,” Vaughn remembers. “The learning curve is no big deal. The console's made to be intuitive for people who know how to operate consoles.”

One of the groups who used the pre-renovation facility and now uses the new one is a local church. The hall is theirs, contractually, every Sunday until 1:30pm. “After they learned that we were going to be using the M7CL, the church approached us and asked if they could use our console rather than their own. For the first couple of Sundays, we stayed around,” says Vaughn. “I helped them get their settings dialed in with their operators, trained them how to load their show, adjust EQ, play around with things. We gave them their key, but there are certain things they can do and things they can't do, one of which is record over their setup I helped them create. They're locked out from access here and to other system parameters.” He adds that they use 16 or more inputs for their service: “They use ECA every Sunday with no staff in the building, let alone a technical resource.”

Theatre And Lighting Design

Even for a project with a very long history, Dale Ward's involvement with the ECA project is extraordinary: He did initial studies for theatre design in 1988 and actually attended school at the facility in the mid-1970s. “It's always a challenge to work with an existing structure as old as this one,” says Ward, who designed and specified both the stage rigging and lighting systems and is owner of Ward Design Group Inc. of Seattle. “The technical demands of the stage are much greater now than they were in the 1930s when this WPA auditorium was built.”

Budget prevented enlarging the footprint of the stage: proscenium opening, 37'10"×18'6"; downstage edge to upstage wall, 29'. “Other than removing some architectural elements that were intruding on the theatrical space,” says Ward, “we pretty much had to work with what was given, but I think we were quite successful in giving the center systems that will serve them for decades to come.” The Ward Design rigging system is a manual counterweight system with loading bridge and locking rail, located stage-right with 35 linesets. An ETC lighting system comprises an ETC Emphasis 2D system with 500 control channels, with an Express 48/96 Facepanel. Ward calls the lighting system “a modest package, but very flexible — one they can always add on to as time goes by.” Stagecraft Industries, Inc. in Portland, OR, handled all theatrical installation.

Before the doors opened, 173 community volunteers signed up to assist the new ECA staff with ushering, concessions sales, and other support — attesting to an early, genuine connection between the community and its special venue. By mid-February, the center had already hosted 50 performances, rehearsals, and special events, and welcomed more than 15,500 people through its doors.

Early feedback from artists and audiences alike is very positive, particularly with regard to the acoustics. “Whether you are building new or renovating an existing theatre, there is always concern about how the final product will turn out acoustically,” says Joe McIalwain, ECA executive director. “In the case of ECA, we have emerged from the design and construction processes with a venue that has already been praised by artists from Al Jarreau to the Ahn Trio to the Cascade Symphony Orchestra for its excellent acoustical qualities. We have a true gem on our hands.”


Edmonds Center for the Arts |

LMN Architects |

JaffeHolden |

Ward Design Group, Inc. |

Dimensional Communications, Inc. |

Stagecraft Industries, Inc. |