Work is nearing the halfway point on a nearly $70 million project to renovate Little Rock’s historic Robinson Auditorium.
Nearly everything has now been ripped out, including the stage, balcony, interior walls and floors, leaving little more than the outside shell of the building and its support beams.
"It is really impressive when you walk in to see the volume of this building now because you can see the floor all the way up to the ceiling. You were never able to see that previously because the performance hall was actually the third, fourth and fifth levels of the building. Now you can see the entire opening. It really is a massive, beautiful structure," said Gretchen Hall, CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, during a recent tour of the construction site. She is overseeing the project.
"Pretty much everything on the interior has now been demolitioned out and now we’re rebuilding back, so we’re putting in new foundations for our future balconies, the stage and the orchestra level that used to be on level three of the building have all come out. They’re going to drop about 35 feet to the ground level which was the former exhibition hall level. That will be our new orchestra and stage level," she said.
Scaffolding is now in place inside the building, which is a constant beehive of activity, with workers preparing for the installation of new interior walls. Trucks often drive through the middle of the building, unloading gravel and other supplies, while heavy equipment is constantly on the move.
"So far, we’ve been really pleased. The structure itself is really great. It’s holding up well. Things are moving well and we’re making a lot of progress," Hall said.
Robinson Auditorium closed last July and is scheduled to reopen in November 2016. So far, Hall says they’ve had no major unexpected problems and work is on schedule.
The project is funded through a two percent tourism tax that Little Rock voters overwhelmingly approved in December 2013, even though only six percent of registered voters turned out. Many residents criticized the vote for being held on a Tuesday in December with nothing else on the ballot.
Standing outside the building on its west side, the framework of expansions can be seen, including what will be a new lobby facing Broadway and a conference center that is being built on what is currently the roof. It will look out over the Arkansas River.
"Here you’re starting to see the new structure that will form some of the vertical circulation and also the lobby space for our new conference center. So you can see some of the steel beams there. And of course you can’t miss our very large tower crane on this side of the building that was constructed to do all of the heavy lifting for the project," Hall said.
While campaigning for the renovation, Hall and city leaders said Robinson Auditorium was outdated as a venue and many, including the conductor of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, agreed saying the acoustics were "less than desirable."
Once work is complete next year, the outside of the iconic building, especially the steps and large pillars will look familiar, but it will essentially be a brand new performance hall.
"This structure means so much to so many people, its touched so many lives. It’s on a very important cornerstone, if you will, of our downtown area, so we’re really excited about the restoration from the historical standpoint, but then going inside and gut and provide all of the world-class amenities that you need for a performing arts center, I think it’s going to be tremendous for the local economy and the residents here because of the types of events that we will be able to bring performance wise."
That will include touring Broadway productions that in the past couldn’t be staged because of loading limitations at Robinson Auditorium.
A key challenge now will be constructing the interior so that it provides the best possible acoustics. On Tuesday, KUAR will have a look at that aspect of the project.