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Connecticut College has received two gifts totaling $20 million for the renovation of Palmer Auditorium and Castle Court into a new and revitalized center for performance and creative research.
Funding for the initiative will be provided through a $10 million grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation and a $10 million gift from Nancy Marshall Athey ’72 and Preston Athey, longtime supporters of the College and its arts programs.
The transformation of the space will promote pioneering artistic production and research, attract world-renowned artists-in-residence, bring together alumni leaders in the arts and offer renewed spaces for community engagement. Central to the project is a historically informed renovation of Palmer Auditorium, the College’s iconic Art Deco theater built in 1939, including a new entrance and a complete façade renewal. The project also envisions opening Castle Court, the space adjacent to the auditorium, into a natural amphitheater and outdoor classroom.
“Our strategic plan recognizes the importance of creative research as fundamental to developing imaginative and engaged citizens of the future,” said Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron. “We are so grateful to the Sherman Fairchild trustees and to Nancy and Preston for their extraordinary generosity and for making this vision a reality.”
The historic Palmer Auditorium was visionary in its own time — a 1300-seat hall, designed by William Lamb, principal architect of the Empire State Building, built to serve not just the campus but the surrounding community. Since opening in 1939, it has featured such renowned musicians, dancers and performers as the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Martha Graham, José Limón, the American Dance Festival, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, the Pilobolus dance company, Dizzy Gillespie, Yo-Yo Ma and many others.
“Palmer Auditorium is more than a performance and gathering space. It’s an academic building and center for arts research and creative innovation at Connecticut College,” said David Jaffe, chair of the theater department. “The renovation of the auditorium and redesign of the broader structure will profoundly impact the study and practice of theater, music, film and dance, both on campus and in the local community. Without question, these gifts will dramatically enhance the academic experience for our students and faculty.”
The Sherman Fairchild Foundation has supported a large range of initiatives at the College in both the arts and sciences during the past forty years. The most significant award from the Foundation to date was a grant of $5 million to support the renovation of New London Hall into an integrative center for computer and life sciences. Nancy Athey, an alumna of the College, and her husband Preston Athey have funded scholarships, research and arts initiatives for students and faculty that have significantly advanced the College’s mission of putting the liberal arts into action. Their sponsorship of the All-Steinway initiative in 2012 not only raised the profile of the music department but also enhanced performance for so many students and community members on campus.
“We are so pleased to play a part in bringing this wonderful project to fruition and to help in the reinvention of a venerable and historic building into a new center for the arts,” said Nancy Athey. “With this investment, we hope to bring the greater New London community to the campus and to contribute to the College’s continued preeminence in the creative and performing arts.”
Specific renovation plans for Palmer Auditorium include:
The initiative will capitalize on the proximity of Palmer Auditorium to both the Joanne and Nathan Cummings Arts Center and the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, catalyzing the development of the College’s south campus as a true arts destination as envisioned in the College’s new master plan completed by Sasaki Associates.
The project is currently in the planning phase with completion anticipated in 2020.
The College hosted a celebration to announce the project and the gifts to the campus community on April 12 in the Charles Chu Room at Shain Library.