Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts

As Originally Seen in Award Magazine

The Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario is a study in heritage building restoration. The project involved surprises, challenges and creative construction solutions. 

Named in honour of renowned Canadian textiles artist Marilyn I. Walker, whose $15-million gift helped fund the project, the building is part of a joint venture with the City of St. Catharines to put a multi-use arts complex downtown. Brock’s arts-education facility – next door to the municipality’s new performing arts centre – is designed to infuse the downtown core with the energy of students, professors and staff focused on creative pursuits: music, drama and visual arts.

The Walker School was once part of Brock’s main campus in the city’s south end, but “we were spread thinly across campus and we had long outgrown our facilities,” says Derek Knight, Brock University professor of visual arts and director of the Marilyn I. Walker School. 

Brock decided to consolidate its artseducation facilities in a single larger site downtown. The university planned to renovate the 19th-century Canada Hair Cloth Company building, where the firm made fabric for suits, seats and parachutes during its 125 years of operation. Brock wanted the project to acknowledge that history, yet provide modern classrooms, studios, offices and theatre space. 

The university hired Diamond Schmitt Architects to design a 95,500-square-foot facility incorporating the 70,500 square-foot Hair Cloth structure plus a new 25,000-square foot section for a theatre, art gallery and other new spaces. 

Historic structure renovations can be full of surprises. That was the case for the university and the builders. “We thought we knew a lot about the Hair Cloth building,” says Scott Walker, Brock’s director, campus planning, design and construction. “But when you get into it, you discover all sorts of things.” 

The building stands on St. Paul Street, one of the downtown’s few curved roadways. Its bend mirrored the curve of the Welland Canal, the shipping channel that once flowed nearby to the south. When digging the new stairwell’s foundations, the construction team discovered a passageway that used to connect the canal to a smaller waterway on the north side of the building. That tunnel was now filled with sludge that had to be tested, documented and disposed of properly, explains project manager Haim Goldstein, construction manager at PRISM Partners Inc. 

The builders had to follow strict regulations and proven methods to remediate the tunnel. But in other areas, they deviated from the status quo. Case in point: reinforcing the historic floor beams. “Usually, we would have used steel channels,” says Anthony Spick, senior associate at structural consulting company Blackwell Bowick Partnership Ltd. “But because of fire code considerations, if we used steel, the existing beams would have to be covered in gypsum board. No one wanted to cover those great old beams. So we came up with this idea of using heavy engineered wood beams on each side of the existing beams for reinforcement. That enabled us to expose the structure.”

Of course, the electrical systems needed to be completely replaced – that involved a certain level of creativity, too. “The location and equipment layout of the new electrical and IT rooms were planned such that existing block walls and the facade walls were maintained to preserve the historic building,” says electrical consultant Remus Banulescu, associate at Mulvey & Banani International Inc. 

The greatest challenge involved the top floor of the original structure. Diamond Schmitt envisioned an open area for visual arts classes, but the existing interior columns supporting the roof were in the way. So the architects developed a set of diamond-shaped steel trusses to shift the roof load away from the original columns and over to new columns along the perimeter. The old columns could then be removed, and the space opened up. 

Brock and the project team created similar ties to the past in other respects. For example, the design of the new 25,000 square-foot theatre section matches the character of neighbouring 19th-century buildings. Supported by sturdy posts, those buildings cantilever over a steep slope down toward Highway 406. “It’s like a stilt city,” says architect Michael Leckman, principal at Diamond Schmitt. “We were inspired by that. So the theatre is on stilts as well.” 

Landscape architects Claude Cormier + Associates ran with the stilt-city concept, reforesting the slope with oak and pine. “The branch structures of these trees tend to be horizontal and go out quite far,” says Marc Halle, associate at the landscape firm. “We thought that was a nice complement to the way the buildings cantilever out from St. Paul Street.”

The red brick exterior of the Hair Cloth building has been restored. The new theatre structure features charcoal grey bricks with accents in red, a nod to the original building colour and, in a savvy bit of branding, Brock’s school colours. Inside, brickwork, iron columns and timber beams are exposed. The visual arts studios within are open and light-filled and the music studios showcase original stone walls. The brand new 235-seat theatre boasts movable seats and a rolling gantry system that can illuminate any part of the theatre space, enabling students to stage a variety of productions. “We can play in the round or treat the space more like a black box,” says Knight.

Despite surprises that slowed the project along the way, the Marilyn I. Walker School will open to students, staff and the public in September 2015. “It’s an investment on the part of the university in urban regeneration,” says Leckman. He adds that the downtown renewal project is already having a positive effect. “If you were in St. Catharines right now, you would see the impact. People are coming back to this area. The investment is paying off.”
Marilyn I. Walker School Of Fine And Performing Arts : News & Media : Bird Construction