Center for Housing Equity and Opportunity in Eastern Connecticut launches with inaugural gathering at Conn
With a quick snip of the ribbon, Connecticut College officially opened the new Athey Center for Performance and Research at Palmer Auditorium on April 29, 2022, in front of a large crowd of current and former trustees, alumni, faculty, staff and students.
President Katherine Bergeron told the audience she was thrilled to mark a major milestone for the arts at Connecticut College with the public rededication of Palmer Auditorium as the Nancy Athey ’72 and Preston Athey Center for Performance and Research.
“Our most heartfelt thanks has to go to the visionary leaders who realized what a renovation of this space could mean for Connecticut College and then stepped forward to answer the call. The first is The Sherman Fairchild Foundation and its director, Bonnie Himmelman from the Class of 1966, who made the initial gift of $10 million almost as a kind of challenge grant. And then the second, the amazing couple who answered that challenge with a matching gift of $10 million. I’m talking about Nancy Athey, from the Class of 1972, and her husband Preston Athey, whose names are now memorialized alongside Mr. Palmer’s on the walls of this building,” Bergeron said.
“This building is the first major capital project of [Connecticut College’s] Defy Boundaries campaign. And that seems incredibly fitting, because the performing arts have always been about crossing boundaries. They are one of the most fertile frontiers for interconnected learning, for thinking across disciplines, for problem solving, for grasping the complexity of cultural differences and building understanding across those differences—the very values embodied in our path-making curriculum, Connections. Nancy and Preston, I cannot express how deeply grateful I am for your leadership and vision in making those connections possible.”
The revitalized Athey Center will serve as a hub of innovation, encouraging performance and dialogue on the critical issues of our time. It will also promote pioneering artistic production and research, attract world-renowned artists-in-residence, foster cross-disciplinary teaching and scholarship and help to advance the work of Connections. Additional support for the $23 million project was made possible by the generosity of the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, the Frank Loomis Palmer Fund, the George I. Alden Trust, T. Wilson Eglin, Jr. ’86, and the Family of Ruth Stupell Weinflash.
The historically informed renovation preserves and improves upon the building’s stunning art deco design, and features better egress and sightlines, more comfortable seating, enhanced flooring, state-of-the art acoustic technology, more natural light, a more open and welcoming entrance, and mechanical systems for lighting, heating and cooling that reflect the highest standards of energy efficiency.
The renovation was led by Ennead Architects, a New York City-based architectural firm that specializes in performance spaces. Brian Masuda, associate principal at Ennead, said the company’s project team respected the wishes of Virginia Palmer and the rest of the Palmer Family, the original benefactors of the auditorium, to ensure the building “be a continuing benefit alike to the College and community.”
“In alignment with these wishes, our approach to the project prioritized carving-out additional shared spaces for collaboration, performance and teaching, while physically opening-up walls to increase visual transparency and communication that are all welcomed,” Masuda said.
“Stylistically, the design team felt compelled to build upon the original Art Deco character, elevating the overall sense of materiality, color and patterning associated with this style, by drawing inspiration from some of the original fixtures and motifs found throughout the building.”
Elisabeth Wales ’22, a senior dance and government double major and scholar in the College’s Entrepreneurship, Social Innovation, Value and Change Pathway, told those gathered for the ribbon cutting that she had already had the opportunity to perform on the new stage when she participated in the Dance Department’s senior capstone concert one week prior.
“The Athey Center for Performing Arts and Research at Palmer Auditorium has already created such an exciting environment to learn in and perform in. And I cannot wait to see what happens in the future,” she said, adding that the space is not only for performance, but also for exploration and research.
“As dancers, one thing we really care about is being able to embody our research. Being able to dance in [the Athey Center] is one of the ways I’ve been able to connect my studies—my dance major capstone is as much a government capstone as it is a dance capstone.”
Professor Ken Prestininzi, chair of Conn’s Theater Department, echoed Wales’s sentiments.
“We now have a beautifully renovated theater that is a center for artistic collaboration and research, specifically designed to lift our spirits every day as we investigate and open up to who we are and how we may all connect, learning from each other as we dance, sing, speak out and tell our necessary stories.”
Board of Trustees Chair Debo P. Adegbile ’91 said the investment in the Athey Center ensures that the arts remain central to the liberal arts, a tradition that has earned the College’s arts programs national and international prominence.
“The performing arts convey … human connection, creativity, expression, and give a window into identity. These shared experiences are replayed in our minds over time, and we often look back at them through the generations,” he said. “Our strategic plan, buoyed and lifted by the Atheys, recognizes the power and importance of the arts in the attainment of a well-rounded liberal arts education. We are committed to advancing the College’s performing arts, and with the Atheys, today, we make a huge step in that direction.”
Nancy Athey, who attended the event with several members of her family, thanked the many people involved in the project, which was successfully completed despite the COVID-19 pandemic “and the total upending of our world.”
“Here we are, finally. And I must say, I think it was well worth the wait,” she said.
“I recently saw a photo of Palmer taken at night, with all of its lights shining. To me, that light proclaims that the liberal arts in action are alive and well in New London.”
The opening of the Athey Center also marked the official community launch for the Defy Boundaries campaign. The ribbon-cutting ceremony kicked off a day-long series of celebratory events, including a genre-defying performance that highlighted Conn’s talented alumni and student artists. Featured performances included actor and theater artist Malik Work ’98; dance artist Aaron Samuel Davis ’14; soprano Stephanie Foster ’18; Wales’s senior capstone dance; choral selections performed by Camerata; and a medley from this year’s musical theater production, Cabaret.