Under brilliant sunshine on an unseasonably warm autumn Saturday, President Katherine Bergeron, Nancy Marshall Athey ’72 and three Connecticut College arts professors ceremoniously broke ground for a renovation that will transform Palmer Auditorium into a new and revitalized center for performance and creative research.
The approximately $24 million project will be funded through gifts to the College, including a $10 million grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation and a $10 million gift from Athey and her husband Preston Athey, longtime supporters of the College and its arts programs. Construction will begin this winter, and the project is scheduled to be completed in 12 to 18 months.
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.
“Our strategic plan recognizes the importance of creative research as fundamental to developing imaginative and engaged citizens of the future,” Bergeron said. “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 Professor of Theater David Jaffe. “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 and 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.”
Bergeron, Nancy Athey and theater major Kiara Rivera ’21 spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony Oct. 19, which also included a musical performance by Connecticut College’s Traditional Jazz Band, led by Adjunct Associate Professor of Music Gary Buttery, and a dance performance by 12 students led by Professor of Dance Heidi Henderson.