The Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau last week rolled out its final plans for the renovation of the WPA-era Robinson Center, a $68.6 million project that will close the state's largest performance hall for a couple of years starting next July. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which rehearses on Robinson's 40-by-60-foot stage, won't be able to use its stage.
But by then, the ASO should have its new rehearsal space — also 40-by-60 — in new digs in the 500 block of Main Street, owned by the Main Street Lofts LLC.
The ASO was to have moved this fall into 12,000 square feet in buildings being refurbished along what is being called the "Creative Corridor," where The Arkansas Repertory Theater and Ballet Arkansas also plan to occupy space. The partners in the Main Street Lofts (there will be apartments above the arts spaces) are Scott Reed, Wooten Epes and Brian Corbell.
The ASO now plans to have the space ready by April, executive director Christina Littlejohn said Monday. The delay, she said, was caused by a decision "making sure the space was acoustically, for lack of a better word, fabulous." The initial design was not optimal for a rehearsal hall. Littlejohn said the symphony is working with the developers' architectural firm, Marlon Blackwell of Fayetteville, "to make sure the space is what we want [now] and in the next 20 years."
A portion of the symphony rehearsal space will be visible from Main Street, as will the barre at Ballet Arkansas. The idea is that folks on the sidewalks, seeing dancers en pointe and children playing the violin and so forth will catch people's attention and tempt them to find out more about the performing arts.
The ASO performance space will be located in the annex to the 1897 Arkansas building at Sixth and Main (once home to Pfeifer Bros. Department Store) and the long-abandoned M.M. Cohn department store. The Rep will be ASO's neighbor to the south, occupying 6,700 square feet in the annex and the second story of M.M. Cohn, and Ballet Arkansas will be The Rep's neighbor to the south, in the Arkansas building proper. Glass storefronts will create continuity between the arts venues.
The symphony, which now operates out of 6,000 square feet in the Heights, will lease its new Main Street space for about the same amount of money it's paying now, Littlejohn said. The rehearsal space will be used by the symphony, the symphony's Youth Ensemble, the Community Orchestra, the Rockefeller String Quartet and for private lessons. Littlejohn envisions an "instrument petting zoo" in the lobby. There will be room for an audience of 100 for chamber orchestra performances, Littlejohn said.
The symphony has just begun to seek money to furnish the space. It will try to raise $100,000 in donations and grants. Littlejohn said she expects Reed and partners will provide the rest of the finish-out.
The Rep raised $400,000 this summer in what Rep producing director Bob Hupp calls "start-up funds" to create a black box theater and classrooms in its space.
"We have just concluded what we believe are successful negotiations on our lease, so we're moving into the design phase of the space," Rep producing director Robert Hupp said Monday. Hupp said the Rep was still trying to "pin down" a time when the space could open, but he thought late winter was a possibility.
Hupp said the funds raised from the capital campaign will allow it to install a sound system, lighting and heating. "More importantly," he said, "the money helps us underwrite our ability to engage teachers" in the gradual phase-in of classes for school-age actors. The developers will install sprung floors for movement classes at their own expense, Hupp said. "They're very generous," Hupp said. The Rep was to have chosen its architectural firm this week.
Ballet Arkansas has also signed a lease with Main Street Lofts LLC and will occupy 1,815 square feet; it launched a capital campaign in June to raise $200,000 to fit the space and expects to meet its goal by the end of 2013. It will use the money to install the dancer's sprung floors and marley surface, mirrors, portable barres and a sound system and for other furnishings. Executive director Lauren Strother said the company hopes to move in after the first of the year.
Dancers will have a lounge in the basement, next to another company: Kent Walker Artisan Cheese.
Since the work is proceeding from the basement up, developer Reed said, Walker's space should be the first to be ready for occupation. A stair tower from the basement to the first floor is being poured this week.
Walker said the basement, with its naturally low temperatures, will suit cheese storage, and he'll also perform the art of cheese-making there. This summer, he purchased a 700-gallon cheese vat, which he's put to use at a temporary location in the warehouse district off East Sixth Street. Walker makes gouda, feta, Leicester, a habanero cheddar and a garlic montasio cow's milk cheese.
There will eventually be a tasting room in Walker's space, but he said he'll develop that as a separate business once he gets the cheese-making business going. He said Reed and partners are "helping a lot" with the finish out, though he will do some of it himself.