An Expansion For All: A sneak peek at the renovation and expansion of Powell Hall

The exterior of Powell Hall, under construction. Photo by Laura Tucker.

The Powell Hall expansion project has been five years in the making and is finally beginning to take shape. On Wednesday, we had a chance to tour the project site and see firsthand just how magnificent it will all be when it reopens to the public in September of 2025.

Preserving the historic St. Louis gem at 718 N. Grand Blvd. is only one facet of the project; bringing it into the 21st century is the other. The original building was actually designed as a movie theater at its inception in 1925. It was basically constructed as a black box with a single entrance, on Grand, and no windows. In 1968, the St. Louis Symphony bought the building as their home and it has been providing a place for our world-renowned orchestra to perform ever since.

While Powell has been considered one of the finest concert halls in the country, The need for the renovation could not be denied. Not only has it limited those with disabilities to enter, it has been lacking in restrooms, concessions, and gathering space. This is all about to change. Three new buildings totaling 65,000 square-feet are under construction: one for the visitor experience, a new Education and Learning Center, and a backstage and practice area for performers that has not existed in the old venue. It will even include a library for the thousands of pieces of sheet music housed there and promises an enhanced listening experience.

The architecture firm of Snøhetta is leading the way with an innovative design to bring new life and functionality to the iconic landmark. Using materials that are found in the original structure like the brick that St. Louis is known for, they will incorporate wood and a wall of windows to bring the inside out for the first time. Passersby will be able to get a glimpse into the concert hall and be more enticed to come inside. There will also be a green space for gathering along the south side of the building allowing concertgoers an opportunity to mingle, and the space can even host small performances. The landscape architects have chosen native Missouri plants and trees for the outdoor space which will be updated with annuals for each season.

The geometry of this state-of-the-art, modern addition mirrors that found in the original hall, such as the use of arches. They not only provide continuity, but give a nod to the city. The yellow brick will compliment that on the current building but will be staggered rather than stacked and the overall slant of the new visitor center will lean in slightly to the old. New entrances on every street will also provide ease of navigation all around the new campus.

We were briefed at the Angad Arts Hotel next door before the tour. President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard, Senior Project Leader of Snøhetta Takeshi Tornier, Founding Partner of Snøhetta Craig Dykers and Unitey Kull, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for the SLSO, gave a firsthand account of the thought process and vision. The project’s dream team consists of BSI Construction building and managing the site, Christner Architects as the Architect of Record, Acoustics and Noise vibration provided by Kirkegaard, Theater Planning by Schuler Shook, and Project Manager Anna Leavey LLC. Years of preparation were needed before the first shovel even hit the ground. 

We were then greeted by Bob Johnson of Christner Architects to take us into Powell Hall for a peek behind the construction curtain. There are a few walls that had to be opened to bridge the buildings. Bob explained how they took every step in preserving the current building and even followed the codes set by the Historical Registry to maintain the building’s pristine exterior. Even the creme-toned paint color of the old building will remain and contrast with a brighter version in the new. He pointed out the ticket booth that will become a cafe and discussed other new amenities.

President Marie-Hélène Bernard joined us and beamed with enthusiasm, describing the benefits for the artists, the staff, and the community. The current venue doesn’t have a loading area for deliveries. This is almost unfathomable considering the scope of hospitality coordination. All of the concerns have been addressed and the renovation will be beneficial to everyone involved.

This project will offer so many opportunities for the city and the midtown area in particular, which has seen steady growth in recent years. The proximity of St. Louis University and Harris Stowe College to the Grand Center Arts District is just another advantage for future generations. The “Music For All” campaign promises innovation, inclusion, and a welcoming experience for locals and visitors alike. | Laura Tucker

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