An experimental black box theater, a state-of-the-art film theater, a sound stage, and a high-tech media and teaching lab are some of the exciting facilities included in the plans for the new Williams Arts Campus on North Third Street.
“The arts campus will serve as a vibrant gateway to Lafayette and the city and provide exciting new academic and cultural opportunities for students and the community,” Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss said during a news conference Oct. 8 attended by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, state and local officials, community members, and the College community. “It will be transformative.”
The $10 million project is being funded primarily by a gift from the Williams family, which over the decades financed the Williams Center for the Arts as well as the Williams Visual Arts Building, which will anchor the arts campus on North Third Street. The late Morris R. Williams ’22 lived in Easton with his wife, Josephine. The couple had two children, Charles K. Williams II and Joan Williams Rhame, a trustee emeritus at the College.
Not only will the project reinforce Lafayette’s commitment to the arts as an intrinsic part of campus life, Weiss said, it also furthers efforts between the College and Easton to revitalize a highly visible area of the city. The use of arts-based development is an initiative supported by Rendell, who in 2004 awarded the city a $9 million grant — of which $3 million went to Lafayette –- for improvements along North Third Street.
“Investing in projects such as this that support arts and education is an important part of what it takes to strengthen our economy and improve the quality of life in our state,” said Rendell. “This project is going to transform idle properties into a larger, more vibrant center of learning and culture that welcomes visitors to Lafayette’s campus. It will put people to work in the process, and, once completed, it will create a new entertainment venue that will draw more people to Easton.”
Creation of the new arts campus involves converting two buildings –- the former Club Mohican and Case’s Tire -– into performing and teaching space for the theater and film & media studies programs, as well as construction of a roughly 4,500-square-foot black box theater.
“It will put us in the same league as comparable schools with theater programs, if not a league of our own,” said Michael O’Neill, associate professor of English and director of theater.
Renovations of Case’s Tire on the east side of North Third include space for a scene shop, costume shop, storage area, rehearsal studio, and a theater to screen students’ work and host film events. A 200-seat black box theater will be built along Snyder Street.
“It will give students a much better feel for working in the theater,” said O’Neill. “We’ll be able to do any production with the state-of-the-art equipment.”
The former Club Mohican, located next to The Spot, a social club for students, on the west side of Third Street, will house classrooms, rehearsal studios, and faculty offices for theater and film and media studies.
Andy Smith, associate professor of English and chair of film and media studies, said the new facilities will allow students to put theory into practice by making films, media, performance, and visual art, and will become a “destination” for students, faculty, staff, community members, and artists.
“We’re creating a matrix of different energies and opportunities,” he said. “If we do it right, we’ll draw people in and eventually what they see will make their heads turn.”
Design of the project began this year and is expected to take about 12 months to complete. Construction will begin at the conclusion of the design process and should take about 18 months.
Easton Mayor Sal Panto said Lafayette’s new arts campus will be the first thing people see when they cross the bridge from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and enter the city.
“Easton and Lafayette have been working toward revitalizing this area for many years, and the new arts campus is a wonderful example of what can happen when a college and its host city join forces for the betterment of both communities,” he said. “The new arts campus will add a critical dimension to the cultural offerings of our city.”
Another advantage of the arts campus’ location is its proximity to major cities, said Smith.
“We’re interested in creating relationships with Easton and the Lehigh Valley but also with artists, filmmakers, and media organizations in New York and Philadelphia,” he said. “We want it to be a vibrant addition to the campus, but also a pathway to other relationships that will benefit the students and community.”
The first phase of the arts campus was completed in 2001 with the opening of the Williams Visual Arts Building, made possible through a $4.5 million gift from the Williams family.
The Williams Visual Arts Building, one of the nation’s leading high-tech facilities for art education and gallery exhibitions, not only serves Lafayette students, but offers ongoing programs for high school students and local residents.
Since receiving the $3 million state grant, the College has purchased and demolished several buildings along the Third Street corridor, including the former Ponulak property between the Williams Visual Arts Building and the former Case’s Tire property. That space has been transformed into an open-air arts plaza overlooking the Bushkill Creek. In August, the Hubcap and Wheel Store was demolished. For now, the College plans to leave the Snyder Street site as a grassy, park-like area.
“It’s only a matter of time before this arts campus becomes a hub of creative interaction, where students and local residents can take classes, view films, visit exhibits, and attend shows,” Weiss said. “It’s incredibly exciting.”