Once upon a time, there was a spot in Montgomery County where all the locals would gather. Robert Brewer, who grew up when the area around Tuckerman Lane was “still a bit rural,” remembers that spot from his childhood.
“Strathmore was the ‘mansion on the hill’ where we all went sledding in high school,” said Brewer, who has gone from a kid on a Flexible Flyer to the Chairman of the Board of The Strathmore Foundation. “Things have changed; all for the better.”
But one thing hasn’t changed: Strathmore is still in some ways the focal point of Montgomery County, a place that attracts not just children but families and people of all ages who love music, art, great performances and fun. From his vantage point at the law firm of Lerch, Early & Brewer, headquartered in Bethesda, Brewer says he’s had “a front row seat to watch the changes to our county over the years.
“It was a brilliant idea, a monumental effort and an incredible bout of luck to build the music center that we have today,” he said, noting that 190,000 square-foot Music Center at Strathmore, which opened in 2005, was the product of a tremendous amount of money, effort and dedication from several entities.
“We have a superb regional music center, among the best in the nation,” said Brewer. “The physical aspects of the building are stellar, the acoustics are tremendous and the educational component makes it a universally accessible building and grounds for all the artistic partners—a great collaboration.”
But even in a building as iconic as the Music Center at Strathmore, there’s room for improvement. “In a perfect world, we’d make the building even better,” Brewer said. And that’s what he and the entire Strathmore team are getting ready to do.
Strathmore Hall Foundation CEO (and founder) Eliot Pfanstiehl chalks it up to the part of his job that involves constantly peering into the future. “We looked ahead and said, ‘What is the next chapter in our lives?’” Pfanstiehl explained. “Several things came out of that.”
One was the recently launched East County Initiative, Strathmore’s push to open arts opportunities farther afield than North Bethesda with expansive programming in underserved areas of Montgomery County. Next up was the formation of the Mansion Renovation project, to repair and shore up the 100-year-old “mansion on the hill” to maintain its structural integrity and ensure its ongoing usefulness as an integral part of the Strathmore campus. With those two programs in place, Pfanstiehl said, thoughts turned to the Music Center.
“We said, ‘What’s wrong here that we didn’t do right the first time?’” It was a question Strathmore’s patrons answered loud and clear. “They told us, ‘You don’t have enough places to sit down and eat,’ leaving many people to wander the halls idly with their trays before a show,” he said. “And, ‘We think your staircase is pretty, but we really don’t like climbing up it as we get older.’ That mobility issue became very critical.”
And so, Strathmore went back to Grimm & Parker Architects of Bethesda, the local firm that had partnered on the Music Center’s original design, and soon the solution became apparent: cover the Bou Terrace to create more seating for pre-show dining, and install an escalator to quickly and easily move patrons from the main Promenade level to the Orchestra level before and after concerts.
“It’s tricky,” said architect Sue Hains, noting that the sleek Music Center has become a celebrated part of the landscape with its iconic shape and stunning glass-and-stone composition. “But we’re very happy with the design, and we’re blending very well with the original building.
“Years from now people won’t know there was an addition.”
Right now, however, Strathmore does want people to know—primarily because this is a project that combines private and government resources in a unique and visionary way.
The one-two refurbishment punch of Mansion and Music Center became a single project that the board approved and submitted for state and county funding; the county provided $4 million for the (nearly completed) Mansion renovation, while the state will provide $6 million for the Music Center addition (plus $1 million for planning and design), while Strathmore endeavors to raise $3 million through private donations. The goal right now is a January 2020 completion–just in time to celebrate the Music Center’s 15th anniversary season.
The final build-out will add 5,000 square feet to the venue without changing its original footprint, creating a glass-enclosed area with 200 seats that is adaptable to nice weather by virtue of retractable floor-to-ceiling glass panels and “an outdoor component that has kind of a porch feel to it,” Hains said.
“We want to improve the circulation and add a fresher look,” she explained, adding that the vision for the space reaches beyond being a nice place to enjoy Ridgewell’s catering before shows. Pfanstiehl said the area will generate income as a rental space for private events, meetings and performances. And David E. Dise, director of the Department of General Services in Montgomery County, pointed out that his agency is involved to make sure the Music Center at Strathmore remains “the people’s house.”
“That was the concept behind Strathmore, from the beginning,” said Dise. “Bringing an arts, entertainment and cultural venue to the county—where there was a real void. To have a focal point, to champion the arts, to have county residents take pride in this place being theirs: it’s a public benefit.”
Dise said the nature of the Strathmore-Montgomery County partnership is exemplified in this project, whereby the county provides oversight and assistance and reaps the benefits of providing a world-class music venue to its residents.
“Strathmore as a public arts center—and the Bou Terrace enhancements—serves to emphasize the county’s commitment to the arts and culture,” he said. “Strathmore is the crown jewel of that commitment. We are making an excellent venue even better.”
View Strathmore and its upcoming events and performances on CultureSpotMC here.