WASHINGTON – The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is planning its first major expansion since it opened in 1971 as a "living memorial" to President John F. Kennedy, with new features including pavilions to house rehearsal halls and classrooms, a memorial garden and a floating stage on the Potomac River.
The plans unveiled Tuesday call for a $100 million addition that would create a more lively outdoor space for gatherings and performances, with a pedestrian bridge connecting the center to the river. Architect Steven Holl drafted the initial concept and was hired from among several contenders to design the expansion.
New marble pavilions -- made from the same Italian Carrara marble as the original building's walls -- would rise from a new garden situated beside the center, and the pavilions would be connected underground. Most of the new facility, totaling about 60,000 square feet of usable space, would be buried below the surface to help preserve the silhouette of the center's primary building.
Officials plan to raise private funds to build the project. To kick off the capital campaign, Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein is giving $50 million to fund half the cost. The center aims to raise an additional $75 million to complete construction and establish a programming fund. Officials hope to open the new space in 2018.
Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser said the new pavilions would have windows to allow visitors to look in on rehearsals of opera, theater or dance.
"We're giving a great improvement in public access to the Kennedy Center, to our art making," Kaiser said. "It's going to allow us to engage our audience in new and different ways."
The new space for rehearsals and education programs also is desperately needed as the center has grown since 1971, Kaiser said. The center now includes a national arts education program and houses the Washington National Opera as a permanent affiliate.
In an interview, Holl said he is honored to work on a memorial to a president he saw inaugurated in 1961 and respected so much.
"The Kennedy Center is a living memorial. It's active, open to the public for performance, the arts, which he really believed in," Holl said.
Preliminary plans call for a memorial garden to honor Kennedy. It could include 46 Gingko trees to note the number of years Kennedy lived, 35 lavender rows for the 35th president, and a video wall for projections of performances from inside the Kennedy Center.
"The idea really is that the landscape is activated," a fusion of architecture and landscape features, Holl said.
It could include a reflecting pool the exact length of the PT-109 boat that Lt. John Kennedy commanded during World War II. Holl envisions a deck along the pool made from the same mahogany wood as the boat. It could also include inscriptions of Kennedy's words.
The biggest challenge in the design concept could be winning approval for a performance stage that would float on the Potomac River, Holl said. Still, he said he has successfully negotiated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a past project that fell inside a flood plain.
"I'm ready for the fight," he said.
Open-air performances were once held on a floating river stage nearby at the Lincoln Memorial in the 1930s.
The new expansion plans come more than 10 years after the Kennedy Center announced a major project to build two new buildings and a plaza over a nearby freeway to connect the center with the National Mall. The $650 million project was essentially canceled in 2005 after budget constraints forced Congress to eliminate $400 million in federal funding for the project.
Kaiser envisioned a museum of the performing arts as part of that project. Now, he said, the center can plan future exhibition galleries in its main building as education programs and rehearsals move to the new facilities.
Rubenstein, a billionaire businessman and a former vice chairman of New York City's Lincoln Center, said the Kennedy Center has been limited by its building over the years. So he wanted to plan a realistic project that could be privately funded without relying on Congress. As the federal budget tightens, Rubenstein said more Americans should consider supporting nonprofit federal entities like the center.
Rubenstein's gift is the largest in the center's history. Combined with previous gifts, he has donated $75 million, making him the center's largest donor.
Adding a garden and outdoor pavilions will make the center more inviting, Rubenstein said.
"Rarely do people say in Washington, `I'm going to go over and spend a couple hours at the Kennedy Center,"' Rubenstein said, noting it's often an evening destination for shows. But that will change, he said. "What we wanted to do was to remind people that this is a living memorial to a president."