Rollins College is renovating the Mills Memorial Hall and designing a new black box theatre.
Rollins College is known for having many things — a liberal arts education, an enthusiastic student body and a bustling arts culture — but none more so than a focus on its long and rich history. Both staff and students at the school, founded in 1885, take pride in its enduring architecture and spirit.
But, enduring doesn’t necessarily mean unchanging. And the Winter Park college is deep into a transitionary period that will become a significant chapter in its storied history.
Two of the school’s iconic institutions — The Fred Stone Theatre and the Mills Memorial Center — are going through changes. The former has been destroyed, while the latter has been almost completely gutted.
It’s a pair of striking moves considering the school’s historical pedigree, but school staff are excited to show Winter Park what will be built in their places.
Mills Memorial Hall
In many ways, the Mills Memorial Hall is the central hub of the Rollins College campus. But the building — originally a school library — was seen in many ways as outdated and ill-equipped to deliver a liberal arts education. Two years ago, Rollins President Grant Cornwell decided it was time for a change.
“We had this idea to make sure our physical campus mirrored the educational experiences we want to create for students,” Lord Family Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs and Community Micki Meyer said. “Mills Memorial Hall is in the center of campus. ... The building had a lot of different programs, but they weren’t really connected or mission-aligned.”
The new Mills Memorial Hall plan was designed to be the showcase of the campus. It will have an open-office concept with smaller faculty offices — about 96 to 100 square feet — and also will contain many glass panes and windows to promote transparency and accessibility between staff and students.The idea is to devote more physical space to students to promote collaborative work spaces, Meyer said.
There also will be a number of special amenities inside the building, including a lab for students to discuss and attempt to solve social issues and a film studio. The school’s WPRK radio station, previously relegated to the basement of the building, now will be front and center on the first floor.
The student newspaper also will be present on the first floor. The school’s career center was previously on the outskirts of campus and will be moved to the center.
It’s an ambitious redesign, and staff made sure to keep a portion of the old building intact to retain that Rollins Spanish-Mediterannean feel. The building’s front, which was three floors, will remain, while the back of the building, which was six floors, was ripped away for a completely new build.
“It’s a building that’s been around since the 50s; there’s a lot of connection and memories for students and alumni,” she said. “It was always the goal to keep with the look of Rollins, what keeps us unique and special, but also change internally to reflect the changing times.”
The project went through its demolition phase last summer in demolition and soon will enjoy its first concrete pour. Meyers predicts the building will be turned over to staff next August. The building is expected to reopen in the early fall.
New Black Box Theater
Unlike the Mills Memorial Building initiative, the decision to replace the Fred Stone Theatre building took much less time — it was more or less prompted by an act of God.
The theater was torn down last summer after it was revealed the building, which served as a Rollins performance space for over four decades, had structural damage stemming from the previous hurricane season.
Since then, the Rollins Theatre Department has been hard at work designing and budgeting a new theater space to take the Fred Stone’s place. The Winter Park Planning and Zoning board gave preliminary approval for a 11,665-square-foot black box theater during its Dec. 4. meeting.
Rollins staff is hopeful the theater will be completed by fall 2020, according to according to David Charles, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance and producing director.
The new theater will seat 130 people and have a series of structural updates that will reflect modern design. The Fred Stone theater was originally a church, and some of its architectural fixtures — the interior rises, a “false” presidium archway where the altar once rested — proved to be awkward or clumsy when organizing a show.
Instead, the new theater will have retractable seating for greater flexibility and a gangway walk for easier lighting or scenery adjustments, according to design documents.
Although many of the theater’s finer details are not yet finalized, the more flexible seating arrangements will be beneficial to the building’s daytime classes and evening shows, Charles said.
“We so loved the prior space, but it had been on its last legs for a while; I think everyone was reluctant to put serious money into it,” he said. “If a student really wanted to move the seating but that wouldn’t allow classroom activity unobstructed, there was a lot of negotiation.”
He said staff also is considering electronic seating that can fold in and out like sports bleaches; a way to switch to environmentally friendly LED lighting; and a more robust sound system. He notes it will ultimately be a matter of budget versus desire.
“A good black-box space is essentially designed to be flexible,” he said. “That is often our primary question: What’s going to give us the most options? … That’s what excites us, to have a space where we’ve taken off some of the constraints of their imagination.
Rollins theater senior Addison Cursey, 20, said it was bittersweet watching the Fred Stone Theatre being torn down last summer. But she also has to admit — she’s excited to see what’s next.
Cursey had worked at the Fred Stone theater as an electrician, a lightboard operator and a stage manager. It often had been the beginning venue for underclassmen starting off in theater — groups would work together to touch up the theater and prep the theater equipment — but Cursey admits there were more than a few technical limitations that distracted from the shows themselves.
She recalled one play that needed specific lighting fixtures during which the technical team had to go through extra steps to set up the lighting in the space.
“The less you have to think about what technical steps you have to take, the more you can focus on the design and the performance,” Cursey said. “For us (students), I think we were just ready for a new space just because, although we love the Fred Stone and spent so many hours in there, it just felt old. We’re just really excited for a fresh, amped up space that will get us excited about using it.”
- Center for Career and Life Planning
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