Harlem School of the Arts to Undergo Major Revamp

By Lisa Kopochinski

NEW YORK—Construction is set to begin in August on a major renovation project for the Harlem School of the Arts (HSA) at the Herb Alpert Center in New York.

The $9.5 million project—to be funded by the Herb Alpert Foundation—is the facility’s most ambitious undertaking since the building was constructed 55 years ago and will significantly transform the 37,000-square-foot facility.

An impressive team has been brought in to help the HSA expand its arts education program and optimize space for a broader range of events. Currently, there are three dance studios, several music practice rooms, dedicated visual art studios, a media lab and a black box theater.

Celia Imrey of Imrey Studio in New York City is the architect on this project—known as the Renaissance Project—and has been leading the effort since 2017.

The architect of record is Eric Daniels, who brings more than 30 years of experience in architecture and interior design, with a focus on high-end residential and commercial projects. Architect and acoustician John Storyk, who is a founding partner and director of design at Walters Storyk Design Group (WSDG), will provide architectural and acoustical consultation and planning on the project.Seamus Henchy and Associates is providing overall project management services. The firm has been providing their services to many of New York City’s pre-eminent arts and educational organizations for the past 35 years.

Imrey says the biggest challenge her team has faced so far was how to design a renovation that changes the current building to meet contemporary needs, yet preserves its core features.

“The Harlem School of the Arts/The Herb Alpert Center faces security challenges with its opaque, windowless street façade,” she says.

“The front door is hard to locate. The message from the street is not of a warm and welcoming place, yet inclusion and creativity are part of the HSA’s mission. The current building is not a testimony to the mission.”

Inside, Imrey says there is a marvelous double-height atrium that is used for performances, but this space has almost no AV equipment or acoustical treatment.

“By removing about one-third of the solid brick street façade and replacing it with a glass facade, we expose the double-height atrium and the beautiful courtyard beyond. And, by upgrading interiors that are part of the public path, we create a safe and performance-enhanced, welcoming place for the HSA to showcase its inner workings and talent within. We believe we have elevated and exposed the best parts of the original building, and have upgraded and added other areas to make the entire facility a much better place for all.”

The interior main public/gallery space will be retrofitted and turned into a light-filled, high-tech, state-of-the-art performance room that incorporates both a cutting-edge architectural and acoustical design.

Additionally, there will be the necessary improvements to the building’s core such a new roof and the replacement of windows throughout the structure to make the school more energy efficient. The current café and lounge will also undergo a makeover as will the school’s courtyard garden and waterfall.

HSA President Eric Pryor stressed the importance of the building being seen as a space that invites people in.

“It has always been an oasis on the inside, but that has generally not been known. The community needs to see who we are and know that we are committed to providing a cultural program for everyone.”

School History

The Harlem School of the Arts was founded in 1964 by Dorothy Maynor, with 20 students in the basement of St. James Presbyterian Church. At that time, there were few cultural resources for the residents of this neighborhood.

Musician Herb Alpert, and his wife Lani, have been a big part of the school since 2010 when they and others responded with much-needed capital when financial struggles threatened to close the school.

The Alperts have maintained their interest and connection to the organization and its mission to provide all children with access to quality arts education, world-class training, and exposure to the arts across multiple disciplines.

“As artists, we know how important it is for children to have opportunities that allow them to immerse themselves in music, art, dance and theater,” says Alpert. “Throughout the past eight years, Lani and I have stayed very involved and with great pride watched the HSA grow stronger, expand its programs, and once again become a pillar for art and culture within this growing population it serves.”

Today, the school touches the lives of approximately 3,000 young people annually through programs provided at the facility and in New York City schools, and reaches thousands more through a growing variety of public programs for people of all ages.

The entire corridor is currently undergoing new construction beginning at the southwest corner of 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, and moving down to the organization’s main building. Two charter schools will take their place alongside the HSA on this expanded block. The addition of these new facilities and the renovation work to begin at the HSA will bring an influx of new foot traffic and will surely have a transformative effect on the entire community.

Construction is expected to take one year to complete.