In search of space, part II: Making a better auditorium for Juneau

Changes coming to JDHS stage, but some looking for even more

Posted: Thursday, January 04, 2001

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series on performing arts space in Juneau.

Brass and woodwinds have been known to disappear from the auditorium at Juneau-Douglas High School. Not physically, acoustically.

Those days may be over, however. Better acoustics are among are many improvements in store for the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. Some are already underway.

"The renovation will make this a nice facility," said auditorium manager Toby Clark.

Some of the improvements are part of the overall upgrade of the high school funded by the bond passed last fall. Others are funded by the Juneau Symphony, a community nonprofit eager to perform in a better facility.

"The symphony is trying to take the lead on this. It would benefit us tremendously." said Juneau Symphony administrator Jetta Whittaker.

The problem is that when the symphony, or any group, performs on the stage in the auditorium, the music is not projected out into the room.

"Now we have a real problem with the sound going up into the fly loft," said Clark. "There's an airspace 45 feet above the stage filled with curtains. Not only is it not reflecting the sound, it's absorbing the sound."

This week the symphony was awarded a $4,500 grant by the Nolan Foundation to construct and install a special ceiling over the stage. Whittaker said the group has been working on the project for two years, and this marks a major milestone. Local musicians Bill Paulick and Bob Banghart have taken the lead in developing a relatively low cost solution involving some recycled and donated materials. The major cost is installing and "tuning" the ceiling acoustically.

"The ceiling will improve the clarity as well as the volume," said Clark. "Now the symphony loses the brass and woodwinds, because they're upstage, and they get an overbalance of strings, because that's what's downstage closer to the audience. This will address that."

Last year the group purchased platforms or risers for the stage, which the symphony will use to raise the brass and woodwinds, and a set of acoustic shells that can be set up behind musicians to reflect sound out into the auditorium. These are all movable, and the stage can be customized for different types of performances.

"Its a huge benefit for everyone," Clark said. "The platforms the symphony purchased are now in the choir room and they benefit the choirs and the orchestra on a daily basis. The shell is onstage and benefits everyone there."

A better hall and entrance

Clark said other improvements slated are part of the overall school renovation. Wheelchair access is a big part of the upgrade. Some seats will be removed to widen some aisles and more wheelchair accessible seats will be installed. The steep slope of the auditorium floor makes wheelchair access difficult, so the back of the auditorium will be modified for wheelchair seating. The sound and light controls are currently set up on chairs in the back aisles of the facility. The upgrade will include a wheelchair accessible sound and light booth, with new lighting controls for the auditorium. Clark said painting, miscellaneous refurbishing and general aesthetic repairs will also be made.

One of the biggest problems plaguing the auditorium is the entrance through the high school commons. Architect Paul Voelckers of the Juneau firm Minch-Ritter-Voelckers is working on that problem.

"Its congested, confusing and not big enough," Voelckers said.

Major improvements are planned for the commons, including better soundproofing between the commons area and the auditorium. Currently, arts groups are reluctant to schedule musical events in the auditorium if school or community events are taking place in the commons because the noise carries.

Voelckers said a separate entrance to the auditorium has been considered but is not likely. The main entrance to the commons and to the secondary entrance, the hallway that runs past the gym.

"Improvements to the main entrance to commons will help overall and create easier traffic to the auditorium," Voelckers said.

Other improvements to the commons include food service capabilities for the commons and overall increase in the size and scale of the area.

Voelckers said about $17 million has been allocated for all the improvements and repairs the JuneauDouglas High school, and he estimates about $1 million to $1.5 million will be spent on the improvements that will benefit the auditorium and commons.

Clark said the work could begin as early as this summer.

Better community access?

These improvements may improve access to the facility by community arts groups, the most oft-heard concern about the JDHS auditorium. But the school will still have priority, and confirmation on scheduling community events for the coming year will still be in June.

Athletic activities director Sandi Wagner coordinates JDHS activities with other school groups throughout the state. Wagner and her counterparts spend most of the school year hammering out a complex schedule of activities for the coming year, meshing athletic events, school concerts and music festivals, debate and other activities into a comprehensive calendar. That calendar isn't finalized until June, which interferes with Juneau arts groups' ability to plan ahead. These groups would like to see this planning done 12 to 18 months in advance.

"There's really no way to do that," Wagner said. "A lot of issues come into play."

Some schools don't know if they will actually have the funds to come to Juneau, she said. Other teams basically don't exist the following year because they don't have the numbers. Wagner said basketball games are still being finalized in September for the season that starts in December.

Wagner said most of these activities don't actually use the auditorium. However, the activity in the gyms and commons area, the crowds at the entrances, the noise and the parking problems make the auditorium undesirable for concerts and performances.

"I've been involved in planning for the remodel," she said. "I'm really pushing for a double wall to insulate between the commons and the auditorium and a separate entrance to the auditorium. That I think that is the largest issue there."

If the planned improvements really do address the noise and congestion, community access to the auditorium should improve. For the Juneau symphony, that's promising in the short run.

"The symphony would be fine with the renovated high school auditorium as long as we could use it when we need it," said symphony administrator Jetta Whittaker. "It's the best we've got, but I'm strongly lobbying to build a new performing arts center."

Next week: A new facility in Juneau?

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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