Fred A. Bernstein

A Long Time for a Little Grandeur

An addition to the Tilles Center soars

Published in The New York Times, January 5, 2005


The Tilles Center for the Performing Arts bills itself as Long Island's premier music and dance venue. But its architecture, barely a step up from a Quonset hut, was at odds with the highbrow offerings onstage. And this on a strip of Northern Boulevard known for some of the world's most luxurious stores. If culture matters to Long Islanders as much as commerce, shouldn't the theater be as well-designed as the local Burberry or Barneys?

Along with the architecture problem, the center has always had a location problem. Built largely underground, at the rear of the sprawling C. W. Post College campus in Brookville, it never has had a public face. And the one advantage of a campus site - relationships with other college buildings, creating a feeling of cultural and intellectual interconnection - was missing.

It was hard to imagine anybody giving the bunker-like building a second look, much less walking to it from another part of campus. To get to Tilles, visitors drive along the outskirts of the college to a giant parking lot From the lot, outdoor steps used to lead downhill to a makeshift lobby.

The first concert hall on the site, designed by the Locust Valley firm Bentel & Bentel, was built in 1973, but its roof was destroyed by the weight of snow in January 1978. The Manhattan architecture firm of Mitchell Giurgola was brought in to rebuild.

"We had to work with the insurance money," said Paul Broches, a partner of the firm, explaining why the reconstruction, completed in 1981, was of limited ambition.

Under Mr. Broches's direction, the roof was raised and the outside of the building covered with aluminum panels reminiscent of an airport hangar. Several years later, the words "Tilles Center" were posted in bright red on the gray metal.

This year, Mr. Broches got to try again, spending about $7 million on a series of new public spaces, which were inaugurated late last year. An addition, west of the auditorium, includes a sparkling new lobby, with a glass-enclosed stairway leading down from the parking lot side of the building. The lobby can also be entered from the campus side.

Alongside the lobby is a 60-foot square room for exhibitions and receptions. The addition also includes new office spaces, ticket windows and other amenities meant to improve center operations.

The auditorium, now called the North Fork Hall, for the bank, is unchanged, save for a paint job and new carpeting, but that's not bad. The gentle grade of the seating area is far more pleasing than the steep slope of some Broadway theaters and opera houses.

Still, the auditorium is far from beautiful. With its exposed structure, it is more of an industrial building than a temple to high culture.

Luckily, Mr. Broches's new rooms are more sophisticated. True, their detailing is a bit generic; the bluish-green glass surrounding the elevator is a modern-design cliché.

But the reception room is beautifully proportioned. And there are no lights set into its 26-foot-high ceiling; instead, theatrical-style lamps are clamped to pipes in the corners of the room. That makes the ceiling seem to disappear, giving the building an estimable lightness. The clamped-on lights also symbolize the theatrical function of the building.

A long bench of white oak provides a welcome counterpoint to the expanses of glass and polished stone.

Best of all, the square reception room lines up with the portico of the college's B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library some 300 yards away. Fifty years after the college bought the estate of the cereal magnate C. W. Post from his daughter, Marjorie Merriweather Post, the campus, with 50 buildings on 300 acres, still seems like a hodgepodge. But Mr. Broches has taken a step in the right direction, creating relationships between two of the college's most important buildings.

Now, as one drives by the Tilles Center toward the parking lot behind it, the large red sign on the existing auditorium is glimpsed through the upper reaches of the glass room, which softens its billboard-like brightness. If the old building cannot be eliminated, Mr. Broches seems to be saying, it can become a gentler presence on the campus.

The pedestrian approach from the parking lot side of the building is still a bit awkward. To get over the foundation of the existing building, Mr. Broches had to take visitors up seven steps before they can begin stepping down to the new lobby.

Yet if they are inconvenient, the seven steps up ensure that the main stairway down will be seven steps longer, and that much grander, than it would have been without them. And the Tilles Center has waited a long time for a little grandeur.