(Above: The Jaqua Concert Hall at The Shedd Institute for the Arts will seem brand new when concertgoers arrive for the 2017-18 season; architectural drawing courtesy of The Shedd)
By Randi Bjornstad
Remember squirming in not-so-comfy balcony seats during concerts in the Jaqua Concert Hall at The Shedd Institute for the Arts? Or sitting on the main floor and craning your neck because there was a load-bearing pillar taking up part of your view? Or waiting in line during intermission to use a cramped, 1920s-style bathroom?
Well, that’s all in the past. Thanks to a multi-million dollar improvement project, when the 2017-18 season at The Shedd opens in a few weeks, many of the inconveniences that patrons were willing to put up with because they loved both the shows and the 1926 building that first housed the First Baptist Church will be fixed.
The first shows to be performed in the upgraded Jaqua Concert Hall will take place on Nov. 2 and 5, when the Emerald Jazz Kings play their first at-home concerts of the new season in a show titled, “Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” following performances in Corvallis on Oct. 27 and Florence on Oct. 29.
“We knew when we moved into this building 15 years ago that we would have lots of problems to deal with to make it right,” said Jim Ralph, The Shedd Institute’s executive director and co-founder with his wife, Ginevra Ralph, who also directs the institute’s extensive education programs.
“We looked at a lot of different things that needed to be done, but we realized that small incremental fixes wouldn’t make enough difference, so we’ve just lived with it all these years,” Jim Ralph said. “But we finally said, let’s do it right — let’s really blow it out and really make it good.”
That doesn’t mean forfeiting the charms of the old building, though. The beautiful round-top windows will still be there, although the shutters, which dated only back to the 1970s, will be removed and replaced by soft coverings that work better acoustically.
In fact, some of the windows on the west wall of the concert hall will be turned into doors that open out to a new patio area where people can gather before and during events, Ralph said.
Within hours of the end of the last concert of The Shedd’s 26th annual Oregon Festival of American Music, on Aug. 12, members of the staff cleared out the Jaqua Concert Hall, and the next morning a crew from Essex General Construction began tearing out the balcony.
By Sept. 12, the hall had been gutted and crews began winching into place several huge beams, each 160 feet long and weighing about 5 tons, to strengthen the building and support the new balcony.
Instead of 370 cramped balcony seats “where people were often looking right at the back of the head of the person in front of them,” Ralph said the new balcony will offer 294 modern, comfortable seats installed on an incline that will give every seat excellent sightlines to the stage and also eliminate 10 posts on the main floor that were necessary to support the old balcony structure.
“We knew we had a problem and that we needed to do something, because we began to hear from people who said if they couldn’t get a good comfortable seat or one without the annoyance of an obstructed view, they weren’t going to come to a performance,” he said.
Other improvements will involve removing the slope of the old main floor, replacing it with a tiered flat floor that can accommodate the various activities that will take place in the hall, such as traditional concert seating, cabaret-style tables and chairs, dances and even meetings.
The work also will provide for better heating and air conditioning, sound and lighting systems and a built-in telecoil induction loop system with assisted-listening devices to accommodate hard-of-hearing patrons.
All of the renovations are part of a six-year package of improvements that will cost $13 million and renovate not only the performance and office spaces but also the wings of The Shedd Institute that house its Community Music School that serves more than 500 students each week.
Most of the cost will be paid through donations and grants, Jim Ralph said.
One is a challenge grant that will give The Shedd a total of $2 million if we can raise $5 million by the end of 2018, “and so far we’ve raised about 65 percent of that,” he said. “We’ve also been given other sizable grants, and donations are still coming in. W are working hard to make sure we will be able to finish the project in the six years that we’re planning for it.”
In addition to the bathroom and performance space improvements, future phases of the project will refurbish all of The Shedd’s education and public spaces, including a new “commons” area that will maximize accessibility for all its activities.
“We’ve worked really hard to come up with a plan that will solve all of the problems inherent in using an old building while still keeping its character and scale,” Ralph said.
The Shedd accommodates more than 130 concerts, theatrical performances and other shows — some locally produced and others touring — each year, as well as providing meeting space for many local and regional organizations that are dedicated to cultural and educational programs.
The Shedd Institute for the Arts
Where: 868 High St. in downtown Eugene
Information: Business office, 541-687-6526; school, 541-434-7015; box office, 541-434-7000; or online at theshedd.org/