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Theater Rising

One side of the Wyly Theatre, showing criss-cross concrete supports

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[sound of hammering]

Those are the last few bolts being hammered out of a giant support column at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. Six of the steel columns were removed Wednesday, leaving much of the 10-story building seeming to float in the air.

Jeff Wagner is senior project manager for McCarthy Building Companies, the general contractor for the Wyly. The Arts District theater is so unusual, he says, he hated it at first.

“Didn’t like it at all. I didn’t think it was attractive. And the more I looked at it, the more I worked on it, the more I have come to like it. Now I love it. It’s really, really a beautiful building. But it’s a building that you may not really appreciate or recognize when you first look at it. Your first response to it is going to be, what is that?”

And your second response, he says, will be ‘how does it even stand up?’

Designed by architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, the Wyly Theatre will look like a tall aluminum box. One entire side of that box is a concrete wall, containing the elevators and other support systems. The other three sides are held up only by thin, tilted concrete beams (known in the business as “battered beams”). These leave the bottom two stories, where the performance hall is, looking like they’re mostly glass and air. Much of the high-rise building is cantilevered out 50 feet over its foundation, seemingly unsupported, floating.

Says Wagner: “That’s just going to be one big open space, similar to a church atrium, an auditorium. It’s really a theater chamber.”

But once the concrete beams were poured and set, the six steel support columns were no longer needed. In fact, they’re in the way of installing the theater’s control booth. Chris Arpaia (above) is superintendent for McCarthy Building. The design of the Wyly and the construction procedures it has required are unlike anything he’s worked on, he says. And they’re not likely to be duplicated.

Arpaia: “It’s once-in-a-lifetime, nobody’s going to do this. It’s a very expensive way to build. But of course, you end up with a very unique structure, which is what they were aiming for.”

To remove those temporary supports, the Wyly was lifted a quarter inch. Raising a house is a procedure familiar to anyone whose home has needed serious foundation repair. But here, the theater was raised by a hydraulic jack capable of lifting 400 tons. Once a corner of the 10-story building was lifted, the bolts on the bottom of a steel support (below) were undone and the steel shims (the rusted yellow stack below each side of the support).

It was an anticipated moment, a moment when the building’s unconventional engineering would be put to the test. Would it sag or even fall without the steel supports? Wagner and Arpaia had both predicted that all would go smoothly.

But then the bolts on the top of the steel column were hammered out or cut away with torches. A construction crane began to pull the column free –

[construction noises]

– And there it goes, away from the side of the building. 60 foot of steel hanging in the air.

[sound of diesel engine revving]

After five more hours and five more columns were pulled away, it was the Wyly itself that seemed to hang free in the air.

  • http://nlarimer@verizon,net Neil M Larimer

    This is a remarkable state of the art feat. All involved should be exceedingly proud of their accomplishments especially the contributors to the Dallas Center for Performing Arts. Those contributors had the vision to improve upon Dallas’ landscape and provide a beautiful site for the publics entertainment. This phenomenon will draw people from around the globe to view its creation. Well done Dallas you showed us all how it should be done.