Just over a month after the death of playwright and alum Arthur Miller, the University Board of Regents approved a schematic design yesterday for the Walgreen Drama Center, which will include the only theater in the world Miller granted permission to bear his name.
“It is bittersweet that the designs come to you just weeks after Mr. Miller’s death,” University President Mary Sue Coleman said to the regents at yesterday’s meeting. “He had a chance to review some of the planning with us late last year, and I know he was excited to see the theater becoming reality.”
The drama center will stand next to Pierpont Commons on North Campus when construction, which will likely begin this summer, is completed in 2006. While some regents, including Andrea Fischer Newman (R-Ann Arbor) raised concern about the parking lot that will be partially demolished when the center is constructed, the architects found the location to be ideal.
“Every time I visit the campus I walk it again, and I have to say it’s the best possible site you could have picked,” said lead architect Tom Payne of the firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects. “It’s right at the center of things.”
The estimated cost of the entire project is $42.8 million. The University expects more than $15 million of that to covered by private support, including a $10 million gift by Charles Walgreen, a University alum and retired president of the Walgreen drugstore chain.
The 97,500 square-foot structure will house the Theater & Drama and Music Theater departments. The drama department is currently located in the Frieze Building, which will be demolished to build North Quad.
At last month’s meeting, the regents approved the construction of a North Campus auditorium and stipulated that it be a part of the Walgreen Center. The 460-seat classroom auditorium will anchor one side of the three-story building, and the 250-seat Arthur Miller Theater will anchor the other. Currently, the largest venue on North Campus is the Chrysler Center, which seats 230.
Coleman announced a public groundbreaking in the fall with a memorial celebration for Miller.
“We will invite our campus, the community and alumni to join us in paying tribute to a man who was both an American icon and a dear friend to the University,” she said.
During construction, 250 parking spaces in the lot near Pierpont will be lost. Fischer Newman and several other regents expressed concerns that there will not be enough parking when the drama center is completed.
“You’re going to only have 115 spaces there,” Newman said. “If you have a 230-person theater, and you only have 115 spaces, everyone else is going to have to schlep from somewhere else.”
When architects suggested that the remaining theater patrons use a shuttle, she said, “People don’t like that. Valet, maybe. But you’re making it inconvenient. You’re making it hard.”
Long-term plans indicate the possible construction of an additional parking structure near the theater in 2008, Payne said.
Several regents suggested the construction of that structure be moved up to coincide with the opening of the theater. Payne said that that would be difficult with existing cash flow.
“We can look at what it would take to accelerate the process,” said Timothy Slottow, University executive vice president and chief financial officer.
Newman agreed, emphasizing the need for as much parking in the area as possible.
“What if one night you have something in the auditorium and the theater?” she added. “You’re dead.”
Diane Brown, University facilities and operations spokeswoman, said an analysis into the feasibility of moving up the timeline of the parking garage will be conducted over the next few months.
Former University President Lee Bollinger first suggested the theater in 1997 as part of efforts to illustrate the University’s rich history through physical ties to the past.
Miller approved a University offer to lend his name to a theater in 2000 with a simple postcard, which read, “The theater is a lovely idea. I’ve resisted similar proposals from others but it seems right from Ann Arbor.”
After Miller’s approval, the theater was originally slated for a Central Campus site near the Power Center and had a projected price tag of $20 million.
The cost increased mostly because of increased needs of the dance and theater programs as well as the addition of the North Campus Auditorium.
The recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for his play “Death of a Salesman” among other literary honors, Miller attended the University from 1934 to 1938. During his time at the University, he won two Hopwood Awards for his playwriting while writing for The Michigan Daily and washing dishes for meals.
“I can think of no better tribute to alumnus Arthur Miller than this theater,” Coleman said. “The Walgreen Drama Center will offer academic space for future generations of students and faculty engaged in the creative and performing arts.”