For nearly a century, Constitution Hall has served as a premier venue for concerts and cultural events in Washington, D.C. As part of the historic headquarters of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the building is set prominently within the block along the Ellipse, just south of the White House. The building opened in 1929 and was designed in the Neoclassical style by acclaimed architect John Russell Pope. Constitution Hall was named a National Historic Landmark in 1985.
Designed to host DAR’s annual Continental Congress, Constitution Hall seats 3,704 patrons in an elegant auditorium that features a U-shaped tier and 52 boxes that rim the orchestra-level seating and separate it from the tiered seating above. The space is highlighted by a grand laylight within the coved ceiling; scenic murals; and decorative plasterwork throughout, including ornamental medallions, rosettes, scrolls, flutes and dentils. A series of iconic state seals, introduced by Pope in his original design, are also displayed prominently during DAR’s annual meetings.
A comprehensive restoration and rehabilitation of Constitution Hall was recently completed as the “grand finale” in an ambitious, three-phase modernization of DAR’s entire headquarters complex. A painstaking process to replicate the original laylight and the introduction of a new rigging infrastructure for staging were among the key challenges of the project.
The Quinn Evans design team worked closely with DAR leadership, the hall’s operations staff, specialty consultants, conservation experts and the contractor to realize DAR’s vision of enhancing the hall’s functionality while preserving the building’s historic integrity.
The Historic Laylight
Restoring Constitution Hall’s central laylight, among the building’s most dramatic features, required an entirely new strategy. The laylight consisted of 972 panels that originally aligned with the ceiling beneath a skylight and were designed to filter sunlight and starlight into the interior. The skylight is believed to have been blacked out during World War II, however, and subsequent changes through the decades resulted in the dramatic laylight being permanently concealed. More recently, a solar panel array was installed on the roof that eliminated any possibility of restoring the laylight’s glass panels to their original function of allowing natural light to enter the hall.
Despite these obstacles, DAR sought to restore the laylight as an architectural highlight within the hall. “The more we challenged our architects to bring us a solution, the more they became excited by the opportunity to make our performance venue unique,” stated DAR President General Denise Doring VanBuren in the organization’s American Spirit magazine. “I didn’t want to settle for good enough when it comes to the restoration of the hall. That laylight is the crowning jewel of the entire place. I want it to be remarkable. I want it to be astounding.”
The architectural team worked closely with lighting specialists to create a new series of layered LED panels within the intricate laylight framework still in place. One layer of panels mimics the sun’s daylight rays and the other creates the impression of a nighttime sky with LED points that are programmed to twinkle. The panels can be fully on, as well as provide levels of dimness. For a more nuanced effect, dawn and twilight effects can be achieved with the stars turned on.
The team was challenged to make the stars crisp and bright and not diffused soft patches of light, so theatrical design consultant Schuler Shook Inc. contacted manufacturers, seeking a custom diffused light panel that combined point sources. Mockups were created until the team was satisfied with the panel. The final design features 1/8- to 1/4-inch holes drilled into the acrylic diffuser to create the stars, which are located directly behind the panel’s surface.
In addition to hosting the annual meeting for DAR’s members, Constitution Hall is the location of numerous graduations every year, as well as events ranging from musical performances and comedy shows to tapings of television programs. The hall’s adaptable auditorium can now transform to accommodate a variety of performances. The stage and platforms are extended over the orchestra seating multiple times throughout the year. Dedicated removable seating allows for the installation of stage platforms that do not undermine or cause undue wear on the seats.
The design also provides possibilities for rigging through the 972 LED light panels in the laylight. These panels are utilized safely from a new access floor, above which steel beams for rigging are placed at regular intervals. The new guardrails at the technical bridges within the hall also enhance safety and are removable, depending on the performance.
The elegant and thoughtful design solutions fully achieved the goal of creating a safer, more flexible and accessible venue for a wide variety of performances. Most importantly, Constitution Hall has reclaimed its architectural grandeur and will continue to serve DAR members and patrons for new generations.
PHOTOS: Ron Blunt Photography unless otherwise noted
ARCHITECT: Quinn Evans
CONSTRUCTION MANAGER: The Christman Company
HISTORIC FINISH AND PAINT ANALYSIS: Artifex Ltd.
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: 1200 Architectural Engineers
THEATRICAL DESIGN CONSULTANT: Schuler Shook Inc.
MEP ENGINEER: Loring Consulting Engineers Inc.
ACOUSTICS: Jaffe Holden Acoustics
LAYLIGHT PANELS: Folio