The Freeman Performing Arts Center in South Dakota marks the threshold between prairie and civic life. This small agricultural community of 1,300 has an outsized Anabaptist music tradition recognized nationally. The 37,000 sf two-theater hall building unifies a miscellaneous collection of public buildings and landscapes at the southwest corner of the town’s one-mile grid. The center’s massing projects an ascending system of familiar gable roofs, which absorb the fly tower into a composition reflective of the region’s pragmatic building traditions. The prairie facade is a translucent curtain wall that illuminates the entire interior massing—a beacon for miles on the prairie. A thru-Porch celebrates transitions between the prairie’s agricultural landscape and the intimate gathering space of the building’s entrance plaza on the east side. The intimacy of the east elevation stems from its articulated window systems and charred wood cladding. The arts center’s economy and singularity yield a compelling icon for Freeman, not unlike the disciplined beauty of regional agricultural structures dotting the prairie.
The center’s hall organization is defined by a common ceiling capturing programmatic boxes—Recital Hall, Courtyard, and Concessions/Box Office—lining the approach to the Theater. Translucent walls, clerestory windows, and an interior courtyard create a spatially rich and warm interior, important in this northern climate that typically experiences -40 degrees Fahrenheit annually. The Courtyard expands the Lobby’s gathering area during favorable weather while bringing natural light and nature into what will become the community’s primary interior public space. The Lobby and its Courtyard offer a year-round venue for multiple community uses outside of scheduled shows.
The two performance spaces, Recital Hall and Theater, are warm interiors with wood surfaces. The Theater seats 568 people in a continental seating plan facing a proscenium stage. The room is acoustically modeled for musical theater requiring longer reverberation times than stages for speech. Wood wall and ceiling panels are convex shapes to ensure the spread reflection of sound, supported by sound diffusing surfaces of the wainscot.
Conversely, the Recital Hall seats 155 people and sponsors more flexibility in its interior environment. The stage’s back glass wall can be opened to the courtyard for informal outdoor performances or social gatherings, in effect creating a traverse stage with audiences on two sides. Or, the courtyard can be screened from the stage with roll-down acoustic shades for more formal performances. The Recital Hall’s clerestory windows admit natural light while the room’s articulated ceiling is showcased to the Lobby and Porch, overcoming the homogeneous black box effect imposed on small performance spaces.
The proposal unlocks new synergies with the Freeman Academy (adjacent boarding school specializing in music and performance), Heritage Hall Museum and Archives, and the Freeman Prairie Arboretum. The center’s site planning provides a new gateway porch and plaza for the museum, while strengthening connections between Main Street and the Freeman Prairie Arboretum. Equally important, the center structures an identity and a sense of arrival into town through pragmatic solutions to the building program. The center aims to be a fitting architecture for both the scale of the prairie and the town’s unique cultural traditions.