On Thursday, Dec. 10, Shawmut Design and Construction workers hoisted the Performing Arts Center's final steel beam into place, marking a major milestone in the building's construction. Photo: Nick Dentamaro

Online and on-site, Brown and its partners ‘top off’ future Performing Arts Center

To celebrate the topping-off of its future hub for performing arts scholarship, University leaders joined construction workers and key project partners for a live-streamed virtual ceremony complete with on-site drone footage.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — “It is a place of the unexpected. At its best, it is dynamic, astonishing, captivating and emotional.”

Lynn Nottage, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Brown University Class of 1986 alumna, used those words on Thursday, Dec. 10, to describe the magic of the performing arts. But her commentary was also a fitting description of the under-construction building she celebrated as she delivered those remarks.

Nottage was one of six speakers and hundreds of spectators who gathered virtually to mark a major milestone in the construction of Brown’s future hub for creative performance and scholarship: the Performing Arts Center.

As COVID-safe construction crews lifted the PAC’s final steel beam into place, University leaders and key project partners hosted a live-streamed ceremony to celebrate the topping-off of what will soon become a major center of innovative, experimental and diverse art and performance for the Brown and Providence communities.

Alongside a video feed showing workers led by Shawmut Design and Construction adding finishing touches to the steel structure, University President Christina H. Paxson thanked the crews for their dedication and resourcefulness, noting that they had navigated unprecedented challenges to continue work on the building throughout the pandemic. Thanks in part to their perseverance, she said, the center is on track to open late in 2022 and reach full occupancy in Spring 2023.

“Today, we’re here to recognize the hard work underway each and every day by the teams of dedicated professionals who support this project,” Paxson said. “This celebration is about all of you... especially all of the skilled men and women who are quite literally bringing this remarkable vision to life.”

Paxson noted that topping-off ceremonies at Brown typically prompt in-person gatherings of construction workers, designers, future building occupants and other stakeholders. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, join in signing the final steel beam onsite before it is hoisted to the top of the structure.

But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic — and the rapid virus spread that prompted Rhode Island’s statewide “pause” on social gatherings — this topping-off ceremony looked a bit different. Construction crews wore masks and maintained 6 feet of distance on site as they installed the final beam, decorated with the digitally rendered signatures of key project participants. Ceremony speakers addressed the audience from their homes via livestream. And live footage from the construction site was captured mostly via aerial drone and webcam.

It was a fittingly innovative celebration for a performing arts center that, upon completion, will defy convention. The PAC’s design, revealed by Brown and acclaimed architecture firm REX in February 2019, features a state-of-the-art main performance hall that can transform into any of five vastly different stage and audience configurations — ranging from a 625-seat symphony orchestra hall, to a 250-seat proscenium theater, to an immersive surround-sound cube for experimental media performance.

Beyond the main hall, a suite of modern studios, rehearsal spaces and intimate performance venues will serve as everyday academic resources for students and faculty. Custom-designed for theater, music and dance, the spaces aim to inspire generations of performing artists to create cutting-edge, original artwork and to re-examine well-known works, practices and traditions.

The University’s continued investment in the PAC — and all of the opportunities it will ultimately enable for artists — in the midst of the pandemic’s economic impact is a testament to its strong commitment to the arts, said Avery Willis Hoffman, the inaugural artistic director of the Brown Arts Initiative.

“At a time when the arts industry has been dealt a particularly crushing blow, this building and all that it represents brings us great hope and great opportunity — opportunity to support our students, our faculty, our communities of artists, apprentices and technicians, as well as the broader artistic ecosystem, which provides us essential uplift, solidarity and catharsis, fresh perspectives, tools for survival or radical transformation,” Hoffman said.

The center has signaled hope and opportunity in the construction sector, too, said Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council. In a year when many major construction projects have been canceled or paused, leaving laborers in the lurch, the massive tower crane perched on the PAC site has remained among the most striking elements on the Providence skyline, illuminated at night and visible from miles around.

Sabitoni said he and his colleagues are grateful to leaders at Brown and Shawmut for finding healthy, safe and innovative ways to continue work on the PAC. Since mid-March, crew members have stayed safe by completing daily health questionnaires and on-site temperature checks, wearing personal protective equipment provided by Shawmut and maintaining 6 feet of distance between one another.

“It’s been difficult working through the pandemic, but I have to say... with the commitment of companies such as Shawmut and teams such as Facilities Management at Brown, we’ve been able to meet these challenges,” Sabitoni said. “They do everything humanly possible to ensure the men and women who are out on the ground are provided with every single absolute necessity to maintain safety, distancing and sanitization.”

He added that continued progress on the PAC has been a particular boon to dozens of low-income Providence residents who were hired to work on the project as apprentices, an effort facilitated by the nonprofit Building Futures. In the last decade, 320 apprentices hired by Building Futures have helped to construct buildings on Brown’s campus, 108 of whom completed apprenticeship programs and progressed into well-paying construction careers.

“The next generation of workers is gaining their start right now, right here, on this project,” said Andrew Cortes, director of Building Futures. “We see these opportunities transform people’s lives on a daily basis. This partnership [with Brown] is incredibly important and impactful.”

According to John Cooke, a program manager in Facilities Management at the University, workers poured the PAC’s concrete foundation, installed floor slabs on the subterranean and ground floors, and completed major utility connections around the perimeter of the building over the course of the spring and summer of 2020. In 2021, crews will turn their focus toward completing the roof system, building the east lobby’s steel structure, creating a water-tight exterior wall system and installing mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

The 94,000-square-foot center is under construction on The Walk (a series of linked green spaces that intersect campus) between Angell and Olive streets, facing the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts — a site on Brown’s College Hill campus approved by the Providence City Plan Commission in April 2018. The site is the former home of Sharpe House, which was relocated to Brown Street in 2018 and is now connected to Peter Green House.