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    Hattiloo Theatre designed to play big role in Overton Square

    Thomas Bailey Jr. - The Commercial Appeal -

    The future home of Memphis's black repertory theater will embrace Cooper Street in Overton Square with a glass-wall lobby and marquee reaching out to the sidewalk.

    Hattiloo Theatre also will feature an exterior copper wall that should weather the years with changing hues, as if celebrating color variety.

    The theater intends to make a cultural statement with its $2.8 million new home, and on Sunday will preview the message with the release of design renderings.

    Construction is to start in March, and the new theater on Cooper at Monroe is expected to open in March 2014.

    Hattiloo already has raised more than $2 million of a $4 million fundraising goal.

    Founder Ekundayo Bandele said he loves archimania's design as much for all the uses it allows under budget as for the way it looks.

    The theater hired the award-winning, progressive-design firm not so much to push the architectural envelope, but because archimania committed to include everything Hattiloo wanted in just one phase of construction.

    "To give us that type of building for that much space for $2.8 million is incredible," said Bandele, the artistic and executive director.

    The complex is organized in two parts: a tall building on the north side that includes two black-box theaters, one with 175 seats and the other 75; and a shorter building on the south side that includes the multipurpose lobby, offices and courtyard.

    A copper veneer will wrap around the south wall and marquee. The lobby's glass walls will face Cooper and Monroe.

    Polished masonry will wrap around the lower, exterior wall on the taller, theater side, and the same brick will extend inside to form the lobby's north wall. The upper exterior on the theater side will be cement board.

    The exterior design pursues three goals, said Todd Walker, archimania principal.

    The glass lobby and cantilevered marquee will engage the sidewalk, inviting passers-by to look and even step inside.

    "That really, effectively makes the theater retail," said Barry Yoakum, also an archimania principal. "It connects and makes you want to be a part of it.''

    The second goal involves the copper. As the metal weathers to green and brown over the years, the building will show Hattiloo aging with the theater district. Copper also fits with the historic Midtown area and with Overton Square's long history, "at least in a cultural way," Walker said.

    A third goal is to have the building "be honest about what it is," he said. The theater side is solid, tall and large with cement block, and the lobby/office side has the lower volume with glass and copper.

    The project is part of Overton Square's redevelopment and the effort to promote the old entertainment, restaurant and retail center as a theater district. Playhouse on the Square, Circuit Playhouse, TheatreWorks and the Studio on the Square movie theater are already there.

    Loeb Properties is spending $19 million renovating the Square in concert with the city's $14 million project to build a three-level parking garage/stormwater detention structure.

    Hattiloo Theatre and the parking garage will partially fill the vast surface-parking lot behind Overton Square's row of buildings along Madison. The parking lot is bounded by Cooper, Monroe, Florence and Trimble. Loeb sold the corner at Cooper and Monroe for $320,000 to the city, which is leasing the land to Hattiloo for $1 a year.

    "The site is compact, as is the building," another archimania architect, Tim Michael, wrote in an email. "This translates into a more intimate environment where I believe patrons will move about comfortably and with ease. The building may be a bit different from that which people are accustomed, as is usually the case with archimania, but it will have all the components theater guests expect."

    The building's ceiling drops to lower the scale as people move deeper into the building. "The simple organization allows the main theater, concessions and restrooms to be easily accessed without the need for costly or disorienting corridors," wrote another archimania architect, Scott Guidry.

    Access to a courtyard facing Monroe on the south side is gained from inside the building. "Yet it is open to the sky, making for an uncommon 'room' for Memphis," Guidry said.

    Judging from a reporter's description, Ray Brown likes how the building helps form more social, public spaces by being close and transparent to Cooper instead of being fronted by a suburban-style parking lot.

    "From what you are describing it certainly makes the pedestrian experience of walking alongside the building interesting," said the architect and urban designer who advocates for more walkable, pedestrian-friendly districts in urban Memphis. "There will be something to look in and see."

    Buildings can be designed to stand as if they have no relationship "or they can be designed to create and frame open, public space and serve as a backdrop for civic life," he said.

    Loeb and architectural firm LRK with Overton Square's overall redevelopment and archimania with Hattiloo Theatre are "doing more than just making a building, they are making a place. Having a place where people can gather and feel comfortable and connect with each other ...," Brown said.

    Ekundayo aspires to make the new building more than a theater. A second name will be on the building: "The J.W. and Kathy Gibson Cultural Arts Center."

    "We will do more things than just show plays," Ekundayo said. "We'll have art showings, concerts. We'll have dance performances. It'll definitely be a cultural arts center and not just a theater."