Making a Place for the Arts and Artists

We’ve enjoyed renovating and expanding the fabled Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, where the likes of Meryl Streep, August Wilson, and Michael Douglas got their start. Founded in 1964, the Tony Award-winning Center is the “Launchpad of American Theater,” developing and nurturing aspiring artists and new works for the stage. It is home to six distinct programs, among them the annual O'Neill Playwrights Conference, Music Theater Conference, and Puppetry Conference.

The existing campus was a collection of Victorian, Federal, and rustic farm buildings set amidst stone walls and expansive pastures leading down to Long Island Sound.

Our charge was to develop a master plan for additions and improvements such as housing for 65 students, a rehearsal facility, a new 400-seat theater, a dining hall, a production studio, improved parking, reorganization of visitor access, and renovations to several existing buildings. Our challenge was to do all this while preserving and even enhancing the O’Neill’s special character.

We feared that a 65-bed dormitory might overwhelm the place. So we decided to tap into America’s 19th century Methodist Camp tradition. The camps were built in woodsy locales under shady trees and consisted of tiny Victorian cottages surrounding a big central pavilion where daily prayer and community gatherings took place. The camps eventually lost their religious focus and morphed into cultural “cottage camps,” some of them, like Chautauqua in New York State, centering on the performing arts.

We thought a group of charming small cottages might minimize the impact of so much new construction on the campus’s lovely open space. We also liked the idea of a socially inviting village for the many actors, playwrights, and directors who visit throughout the year, and we hoped the comfortable porches and intricate Victorian detailing would create an atmosphere of a simpler time.

Advances in durable composite building materials allowed us to select elaborate gingerbread trim pieces out of catalogs and to rely on them to hold paint and withstand the elements. Otherwise our Victorian cottages would have posed insurmountable maintenance issues in this seashore environment.

The O’Neill’s staff, along with Centerbrook Project Manager Dan Batt, joined me in mixing and matching a diverse pallet of colors. We took particular pleasure in the fantastic names paint manufacturers conjure, for example: Mega Greige, Rhapsody Lilac, and Something Blue (not to be confused with Sorta Blue).

We are thrilled that our efforts at the O’Neill are indeed making this hotbed of American theater an ever more memorable place. Maybe our little cottages will house yet another Lee Blessing or Wendy Wasserstein, honing their craft and readying their artistic vision for the world.

Photos by Brenda Floyd, Dan Batt