With a Limited Budget, a Contemporary Theater Becomes More Flexible and Welcoming

2nd Place, Whole Building

Studio Theatre is Washington, D.C.’s premier venue for contemporary theater and one of the most respected mid-size theaters in the country, serving nearly 75,000 people each year. Comprised of three connected structures, Studio Theatre was founded in 1978 and was due for a refresh. The organization sought to make significant upgrades that would activate its street presence and better support its long-term programming and production goals while visually uniting its three façades. The 14,859-square-foot renovation transforms the building’s entry sequence, public spaces, and one of four theaters to deliver a branded and inviting visitor experience reflective of Studio Theatre’s mission to foster a connected community.

With a limited budget achieved through a D.C. arts grant and a substantial portion of funds allocated to necessary mechanical and structural upgrades, Studio Theatre and the project team underwent several rounds of value analysis to identify the most impactful solutions without compromising the original design intent. Because of its location in a historic district, the design process also required approvals from multiple local entities, including Historic Preservation Office, Advisory Neighborhood Commission, and Historic Preservation Review Board to ensure the ultimate design changes respected the original building character and neighborhood context.

From the outset, Studio Theatre’s owner’s core objective was to engage the streetscape with a direct connection to the interior public space, which previously felt dark and mysterious. Composed of three several-hundred-year-old buildings, the renovation creates a more inviting visitor experience while preserving the raw character of the original design. A brilliant yellow, branded façade, a 6-foot-tall marquee logo sign, and an 18-foot-high blade wayfinding sign at the corner of 14th and P Streets puts Studio Theatre back in the community spotlight. On the ground floor, an illuminated and customizable poster system replaces the static, etched window graphics.

  • Studio Theatre's renovation reinvigorates its presence along cultural vibrant 14th Street.
  • BEFORE PHOTO: Studio Theatre + Hickok Cole
  • Signage at the corner of 14th and P streets announces Studio Theatre's presence in the community.
  • The incorporation of modern design elements and fresh coats of paint revive the second floor lounge.
  • Branded signage welcomes guests into the new lobby and reception area.
  • The new and improved Victor Shargai Theatre provides a flexible backdrop to produce a myriad of performance types.
  • BEFORE PHOTO: Studio Theatre + Hickok Cole

New glazing at the main entrance allows natural light to reach deep into the building’s core. Paired with reconfigured programming, a brighter, more spacious lobby and reception area are created.

A freshly painted feature stair adorned with new display space for branded graphics invites guests to the second-floor lounge. Renovations to the lounge embrace the original, industrial design by introducing modern finishes in high-traffic areas. The raw concrete floor has been exposed and underpinnings and I-beams are left visible. Exposed ceilings, preserved factory windows and uncovered fire-brick walls nod to the building’s history. A new shelving system, white marble countertops, and seating banquettes rehabilitate the bar and lounge spaces.

The renovation transformed a former fixed-tier seating and stage arrangement into a flexible and agile black box theater—renamed the Victor Shargai Theatre—designed to support a variety of programming and theater types. The 2,750-square-foot theater was relocated to a larger space on the first floor for better visibility and accessibility. The new theater features a seating capacity of 215 and more than 300 standing—nearly double the capacity of its former design. Perforated screens surround three sides of the box, hiding acoustic and installation equipment, with the fourth, northern-facing side left raw.

Part of the renovation objective was to better accommodate the theater’s impressive collection of equipment and make the back-of-house easier to navigate. Hanging 20-feet overheard, a new full-tension wire grid, supporting new lighting, sound, and projection technology replaces an outdated rigid and narrow catwalk system.

Mitigating acoustics was a core priority from the outset. In addition to eliminating street noise from the bustling 14th Street corridor, it was crucial to isolate noise inside the building, so multiple performances and events could occur simultaneously. Because the three buildings are connected, any movement in one would reverberate through the others. As a result, sound-absorbing and vibration-management solutions were implemented between and within buildings’ structures while maintaining intended exposure of existing historic brick, terra cotta and plaster.

PHOTOS: Sam Kittner unless otherwise noted

“What is most notable is the tasteful rebranding of a community asset. In this way, elements of the past are seamlessly fused to this new expression.”

— Anthony Vivirito, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, associate, The Architectural Team Inc., Metamorphosis Awards judge

Retrofit Team


GENERAL CONTRACTOR: Forrester Construction

MEP ENGINEER: James Posey Associates



BRANDING: Pentagram



ALUMINUM-FRAMED STOREFRONT: Frame from Kawneer and Glass from Viracon

METAL CEILING PANELS: Armstrong World Industries

FLOOR TILE: Porcelanosa

WALL TILE: Daltile

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