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Bach, Bricks, and Bubble Tea: An Arts Complex Grows At Rutgers

By Anne Levin // Photography by Robert I. Faulkner

On a hill in New Brunswick overlooking the Raritan River, a graceful glass and brick building has changed the way students at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts go about their daily routines of class, rehearsal, and performance. Robert E. Mortensen Hall opened last September to rave reviews from those who watched expectantly as the 24,000-square-foot facility took shape at the corner of George Street and Route 18.

This is the first new building in nearly two decades at Mason Gross, a college conservatory that trains actors, dancers, visual artists, and musicians for professional careers. The school’s Mason Gross Performing Arts Center complex, which includes the Nicholas Music Center, had not kept pace with its fast-growing reputation. It was time to expand. The Princeton firm of Farewell Architects was hired for Phase I of an ambitious project that has provided much-needed rehearsal space, studios and offices, as well as two public gathering places, all in a building that links the school’s two existing facilities at the site.

Several bases had to be covered in the project, which is named for Rutgers alumnus Bob Mortensen ‘63. “We needed additional rehearsal and practice space. We needed a dance studio desperately,” says George B. Stauffer, Dean of Mason Gross. “We wanted a large choral hall for vocal ensembles and smaller instrumental ensembles. In addition to these spaces and practice rooms in the basement, we also wanted an indoor gathering space that would bring students together. These are students in dance, music and theater, and we wanted a way to unite them.”

The college community appears to love Mortensen Hall’s light-filled, two-story atrium, and has shown a particular fondness for Café 52, which sits at one end. The space has become a favorite spot not only for Mason Gross students but other members of the Rutgers community as well. They line up in the atrium for sandwiches with names like “Bach’s Lunch” and “The Tosca,” and the Taiwanese drink known as bubble tea.

“We worked very hard to get this building right,” says Stauffer. “We spent almost two years on the design. We talked with students and faculty and got a lot of input. The students were especially concerned about the café. And it’s been a huge success, just awash with students and faculty. Everything there is high quality so I’m quite comfortable bringing a guest or a donor there for lunch. And as for the space that it’s in— well, it’s just beautiful.”

Mortensen Hall posed one main challenge for architect Michael Farewell, whose firm has designed performing arts spaces in such settings as Drew University and the Westport Country Playhouse. “The existing 1960s and 70s buildings were big, monolithic brick boxes,” the architect says. “We wanted to make a connection of those big pieces to the Marryott building, which is part of the music program. So this is a link between these two buildings—a kind of concourse, or connector, a transparent, open core. And because this is all about the performing arts, all of this energy can be on display. It’s a building that serves as a bridge between these two worlds, a route through the building, which gives us a chance to really show all the excitement of the program.”

The Kevin Goetz Studio for Theater and Dance, on the upper level, is all about natural light. “The idea of light in dance is interesting,” Farewell says. “It comes from above, and sort of lifts the spirit.”

Julia Ritter, who chairs the Mason Gross dance program, couldn’t be happier with the studio and the entire building. “I believe that Mortensen Hall has allowed students and faculty from various departments to come together in a common space to create the kind of community that has long been hoped for at Mason Gross but it was a challenge due to the spaces we occupied on the campus,” she says. “Now, Mortensen’s open spaces for gathering on both the ground floor and the gallery provide students, faculty, staff and guests with places to extend the learning of the classroom or studio through socializing.”

“Learning in the arts happens in many contexts,” Ritter continues, “not just the studio or classroom—our artists work in galleries, theaters, and private workshops so Mortensen is yet another space to explore our ideas and  provides a communal atmosphere. The discourse that occurs between the disciplines is more possible and more energetic in the shared space of Mortensen Hall. Dance is most grateful for these new spaces and for the opportunities to interact with people from many disciplines.”

Also admired is the Richard H. Shindell Choral Hall, which has high ceilings and clerestory windows, excellent acoustics and more than 2,300 feet of space. “The choral hall was a big driver,” says Farewell. “Mortensen was a big supporter of the choral arts, and as we were designing it, it went from a rehearsal room to a kind of concert hall.”

“I love the choral hall,” says Stauffer. “It’s a lovely space and it can be used for lectures and faculty meetings as well as chorus. It’s very flexible.”

Mortensen Hall is a combination of glass and brick; the brick matches the older Mason Gross buildings. It is organized around a central spine that encourages students to pass through. That spine broadens into a large staircase that leads to the mezzanine and dance studio. A 12½ -by-14-foot mural by faculty member Steven Westfall lines the stairwell wall. “It’s enchanting to sit up in the art gallery on the second floor,” says Stauffer. “You can see the Raritan River to the east, and see through the building and the mural to the west. That mural has tremendous popularity.”

Though only a year old, Mortensen Hall has made a difference in the recruitment of students, Stauffer believes. “We just had our best entering class ever and just recruited our best ever,” he says. “The numbers are up. The quality is up. We are extremely pleased with this class. And this is a tough time for the arts, so we feel very fortunate. Without question, the building has made an impact on the appeal of the school.”

Part of the idea was to make Mortensen available to the community as well as Rutgers students and faculty. “We wanted to embrace the New Brunswick community,” says Stauffer. “We have an extension division with 1,800 high school kids who take lessons at Mason Gross, many of which are held in Mortensen. So the parents hang out here. They love it. We had Mayor Jim Cahill come to the dedication because it symbolizes that commitment.”

Farewell Architects has done the plans for Phase II of the Mason Gross project, which is planned to include a 450-seat opera house with a fly tower, wing space, an orchestra pit, and state-of-the-art equipment for fully staged productions of opera, dance, and musical theater. But meanwhile, Mortensen Hall is a monumental first step.

“The comments I get are ‘It seems as if it’s always been there,’ which I like,” says Stauffer. “We made a special effort to have architecture that would blend in with the existing buildings—kind of a Georgian brick style— but also with a bold statement, which is the atrium. We went to great pains to get that right, and I think we did.”

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