The constant flurry of activity at the corner of Markham and Broadway can seem a little underwhelming if you drive by it often enough. The whirling clouds of concrete dust, the orange plastic mesh demarcation of the construction zones and the temporary fencing have started to seem right at home at Robinson Center, despite the fact that the Art Deco exterior of the building seems to have changed relatively little. Don't be fooled, though. The signs of activity outside the building's perimeter are only a hint of what's happening inside: the largest architectural update to the facility in history, the result of a $70 million investment.
The Arkansas Times recently got a tour of the construction, one of the last peeks until the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra's Opus Ball on Nov. 12, which will serve as a sort of grand reopening for the auditorium. Here are some of the highlights:
New stage. An astonishing 36 feet above your head, you can see the spot where the stage floor once was, marked conspicuously by the painted outline of the former location of the backstage fire extinguisher. It's a major shift, and is probably the main reason why the drastic nature of the developments isn't particularly evident from the exterior. Instead of building up, they excavated downward, and to great effect.
New orchestra pit. The exhibition hall is gone, and in its place is a cavernous auditorium with an orchestra pit that can float at the conventional level (below the stage) for an operatic or ballet performance, or can be lifted up to the seating level for performances that highlight the orchestra itself. It can even be extended outward by 5 feet, putting the orchestra right in front of the audience.
Better seats. Speaking of the audience, it's safe to say you'll have a much better chance of getting a "good seat" than you did in the old space. The seats are graduated at an incline, reducing your chances of missing out on the action because the person sitting in front of you is especially tall or fond of elaborate hats.
New veranda. As most of the former structure's footprint was dedicated to expanding the performance hall itself, it was necessary to break 5,800 square feet of new ground for the facility's new conference hall and adjoining terrace. This vast veranda overlooks the Arkansas River, and provides a great view of Dickey-Stephens Park — but why watch the Travelers when there's Mahler happening inside? The veranda also adjoins the Doubletree Hotel, and though it's rough rooftop to stand on now, it'll soon be finished out with lovely limestone pavers and a glass railing from which to view the river.