Politics & Government

Century II solutions: how a city with similar problems fixed theirs

Wichita isn’t the only city that has struggled with problems stemming from a big, round, aging building.

Arizona State University remodeled its round Frank Lloyd Wright-designed performing arts center earlier this year to public fanfare.

But nearly a decade ago in Austin, Texas, a round building was torn down. Enough parts were salvaged to pay homage to the old downtown building, beloved by some in Austin and hated by others – a solution Wichita leaders have occasionally referenced in informal settings.

Century II, Wichita’s 1969-built hybrid convention center/performing-arts facility in the heart of downtown, may be on the chopping block.

The city is currently exploring every possible option for Century II – from renovation to replacement – but most parties agree that Century II in its current state is holding the city back.

Within a few weeks, the City of Wichita is expected to receive a consultant’s report on Century II that could offer clues to the building’s future.

While the city of Wichita grapples with what to do with the aging Century II, other cities that have dealt with similar problems may offer valuable insight.

The Long Center for the Performing Arts

Perhaps one of the best comparisons to Wichita’s Century II is Austin’s Long Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2008.

On the same site as the now sleek performing-arts facility once stood the Palmer Auditorium, a round civic center built in 1959.

In its early years, Palmer Auditorium played host to the Austin Symphony Orchestra and Ballet Austin, longtime Texas arts organizations. But in 1981, those organizations bailed for the newly completed Bass Concert Hall on the University of Texas campus.

Thereafter, Palmer Auditorium declined – over time it began operating at a loss of half a million dollars a year, mostly empty and not earning rents, according to Michael Guarino, a principal architect at Ford, Powell & Carson. He was involved in the Long Center design process.

“Palmer Auditorium was just too big,” Guarino said in an email. “Too big to maintain, too big to program, and too cumbersome to adapt. Like (Century II), it was designed in an optimistic post-war period where it was thought that a hall could be all things to all users – a convention center and concert hall.

“Austin was even considering setting up an ice rink inside the vast volume of the building when it was newly completed.”

By 1986, three arts organizations were regularly performing at the University of Texas – the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Austin and the recently formed Austin Lyric Opera. Scheduling at the university became increasingly difficult, as the organizations had to compete with university productions, touring Broadway shows and each other for space.

Those three organizations decided they needed a new home. To do so, they formed the joint nonprofit, Arts Center Stage.

Arts Center Stage proposed a 50-year lease on the city-owned Palmer Auditorium, intending to significantly renovate Palmer Auditorium using private funds.

In 1998, Austin voters approved that plan.

As part of this public/private partnership, the City of Austin agreed to build a $26.1 million community-events center and a $13.4 million, 1,000-space parking garage – funded by a 5 percent tax increase on car rentals.

The project stalled out in the early 2000s, after designs by “starchitect” Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (known for projects like New York’s Freedom Tower and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world) drove projected costs upwards of $100 million, Guarino said.

Long Center trustees then decided to scale the project back, enlisting the help of a local architectural firm – which came up with the idea to re-use materials from the pre-existing Palmer Auditorium as a way to cut costs.

Guarino said he looked at two buildings before starting work on the Long Center design: Century II and the Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium at Arizona State University.

The architects kept the old auditorium’s floating ring-beam support as an homage to the building and built a new hall within that ring. About 95 percent of the materials from the Palmer Auditorium were recycled into the new building, according to the Long Center.

The project was completed for millions less than it would have otherwise because of the design choice to re-use materials from Palmer, Guarino said.

“This is a radical departure in the way contractors and architects look at buildings, because we rarely make a thorough assessment of the embodied value within an existing building,” Guarino said in an email. “It’s troublesome to work within the limitations of an existing building envelope, but what is the real cost of scraping it off and starting over? All the wasted materials, the energy it takes to manufacture replacement structural components, and the added time it takes to construct new structure in addition to the demolition of the original – these things add costs to building projects, not save dollars.”

Now, the Long Center is a building surrounded by the original ring-beam support from the original Palmer Auditorium. It has a 2,442-seat auditorium, a black box theater that seats 229 and a reception hall that holds 300.

The outdoor terrace, which allows for a crystal-clear view of the Austin skyline, is a popular spot for weddings, concerts and other gatherings.

Guarino, who recently worked on the renovation of San Antonio’s Art Deco-style Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, said Wichita’s “remarkable mid-century building is what Austin’s Palmer Auditorium would have been if they’d had the money.”

“Your building is, at least to my eyes, an excellent example of mid-century design that doesn’t appear to have suffered from a budget cut,” he said. “This building will require more care in modifying it, but the last thing you should think about doing is demolishing it.”

What’s wrong with Century II?

Arts organizations who use Century II – as well as city leaders and those in the convention business – have long been discussing the need for renovations to the building. Lately those conversations have also included the possibility of tearing Century II down and starting over.

Bill Warren, former owner of Wichita’s Warren Theatres – concerned about the future of Century II – has begun to air “Save Century II” ads on local radio stations.

The issue has been hotly debated on social media, and will likely be one of the most-talked-about issues in downtown Wichita this year.

In May, the city spent $293,940 to hire California-based consultants Arup Advisory Inc., to explore the possiblity of a private/public partnership to renovate or replace Century II. According to John D’Angelo, director of the city’s Division of Arts and Cultural Services, that report should be finalized by mid-August, if there are no delays.

Research into the Century II issue has been ongoing since the Wichita City Council first commissioned studies on it in 2013.

Similar projects in comparable cities have cost anywhere from $250 million to $500 million.

City officials are adamant no decision has been made on the facility; in all likelihood, any substantial action on Century II would be put to a public vote.

Mayor Jeff Longwell declined to talk about Century II for this story, stressing the city has made no decision about what to do the building.

Here’s why Century II in its current state is no longer adequate for Wichita, according to the arts organizations that are its primary tenants:

▪ The round design of the building, in its current configuration, causes problems. Century II is like a giant pie subdivided into different halls or auditoriums. That design leaves little in the way of backstage space, as the pie – or hall – narrows closer to its center. This also creates issues for conventions, as most national conventions design floorplans on a rectangular grid, not on a curve.

▪ The auditoriums are not sound-proof. The way Century II is designed, if a lot of noise is being made in one hall, that noise can easily percolate into an adjacent hall. Century II’s halls are divided by a thin vinyl layer in the walls, according to D’Angelo, and those walls don’t extend all the way to the roof. Consequently, sound travels not only through the walls but over them, too, D’Angelo said.

▪ Touring Broadway shows, which sell millions of dollars in tickets, are inconvenienced loading sets in to Century II’s Concert Hall. Semis have to park on Kennedy Plaza and crews load sets in from there. When Century II was built, it had a loading dock built in, which is now unusable because it was built on a curve, and semis are longer than they once were.

▪ The building is simply aging. It often has heating and air-conditioning problems, which, because of a decades-old design and the concrete nature of the building, are often hard to address. Elevators have been known to break down.

▪ It isn’t able to attract as many conventions because of its lack of prime floor space. The Bob Brown Expo Hall, added in 1986, provides the most contiguous rectangular floor space in the facility. But some of that facility is under lower ceilings than most conventions prefer.

Other cities

▪ Madison, Wisc.

Building: Monona Terrace

What it is: A Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center on the shores of Lake Monona in Madison, Wisc. Wright originally pitched the concept in 1938, though the design was rejected by the county. Wright tweaked the design until his death in 1959, and the sketches for the building were widely circulated in architectural journals, leading Guarino, the Austin architect, to call Monona Terrace “the progenitor of all those saucer-shaped halls.” The building was eventually completed to Wright’s original specifications and opened in 1997. It was a private/public partnership ($67.1 million total: $18 million from the state, $12 million from the city, $12 million from Dane County, and $8 million from private donors. The remaining $17 million was to be raised over 20 years from hotel taxes).

How it’s similar to Century II: It’s circular, and the Frank Lloyd Wright design was potentially an inspiration to Century II architect John Hickman. It regularly hosts conventions, weddings, meetings and other such events in the heart of Madison’s downtown.

How it’s different: It’s only a convention center, not a performing-arts facility. It features an accessible rooftop with gardens, seating and views of downtown Madison. It was constructed fairly recently and doesn’t have the same accessibility/internet problems Century II has.

▪ Tempe, Ariz.

Building: Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium

What is it: Gammage Auditorium is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s late-career designs, reportedly based on a design Wright had completed for a proposed opera house in Baghdad, Iraq. Wright died before the theater was complete, leaving one of his aides to oversee the project. Gammage Auditorium was completed in 1964. It has a 3,000-seat performance hall that is used for musical theatre, grand opera, symphony orchestra, organ recitals and more. Earlier this year, the theater completed a $9 million renovation, which significantly improved its restroom and accessiblity issues. The renovations were designed to work harmoniously with the Wright design, an architect was quoted as saying in the Arizona Republic.

How it’s similar to Century II: It’s a circular building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It plays host to Theater League shows, as well as productions mounted by local performing arts groups.

How it’s different: It’s only a performing arts facility and doesn’t host conventions. It has a smaller footprint, and it’s on a university campus. It doesn’t have a paint shop, scene shop, or other back-of-house facilities organizations like Music Theatre Wichita say they need in a new facility.

▪ Kansas City, Mo.

Building: Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

What is it: The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is a non-profit performing arts hall constructed on privately-owned land, built entirely with private money to the tune of $366 million. The facility has two theaters – one with 1,800 seats and one with 1,600 seats. The city does own and operate a $47 million parking garage nearby. The Kauffman Center, which opened in 2011, was designed by Moshe Safdie, an internationally renowned architect.

How it’s similar to Century II: It’s an architectural highlight of downtown Kansas City.

How it’s different: It’s only a performing arts facility and doesn’t host conventions. It is a privately funded venue – no taxpayer funds went to the building’s construction or operation. It doesn’t have a paint shop, scene shop, or other back-of-house facilities organizations like Music Theatre Wichita say they need in a new facility.