SoCal’s Chapman University Unveils Dazzling Dance Center

By Eric Althoff

ORANGE, Calif.—General contractor R.D. Olson Construction has completed its work on Chapman University’s Sandi Simon Center for Dance, marking the successful revitalization of the Villa Park Orchards packing house first constructed in 1918. Chapman spent a total of $16.8 million on the refurbishment, which first broke ground in August 2021.

The 39,000-square-foot Simon Center will be home to instruction courses in dance and other performative subjects. The center hosts a 120-seat studio, physical therapy training room, student lounge with outdoor terrace, four studios and a culinary space. As designed by architecture partner Lorcan O’Herlihy, the design features a mezzanine, high ceilings and two levels of space.

The Simon Center allows for instruction space for up to 150 students at any one time, and will exceed the 100 square feet space that the National Association of Schools of Dance recommends for each individual dancer.

As part and parcel of the work, R.D. Olson had to cut through the main flooring of the old packing house in order to realize Lorcan O’Herlihy’s vision for the new central dance studio. All of the studios in the Simon Center have been elevated with “sprung” flooring meant to absorb dancers’ footfalls, as well as provide some amount of give to avoid potential injuries that might result from such repetitive physical activity. The contractors also removed a century-old “tongue-and-groove” flooring and replaced it with maple wooden boards. The removed flooring was then reused to fashion a 1,500-square-foot decorative wall in the lobby area.

From a lighting perspective, the design incorporated retaining as many windows as possible to allow natural sunlight into the interior. High-performance AV equipment was also installed throughout the studios.

“It was such a great opportunity to work on this next-generation dance facility, allowing us to use so many of our specialized skills,” Bill Wilhelm, president of R.D. Olson Construction, said of the completion. “This will be a best-in-class facility for a best-in-class dance program.”

In a subsequent statement to School Construction News, Wilhelm said that the age of the building presented a unique challenge as he and the team sought to preserve the historic architecture while also bringing the building up to 21st century purposes.

“The initial phase of the renovation required a stretch in imagination as the R.D. Olson team needed to think outside the box during the structural seismic upgrade, supporting a 100-year-old building in order to place new structural components,” Wilhelm said of the necessity of earthquake-proofing the building in the seismically active region.

The dance center sits adjacent to two other Chapman buildings constructed by R.D. Olson, the Hilbert Museum of California Art and the K residence hall.

R.D. Olson was founded in 1979 and has consistently ranked among the top general contracting firms in California. In addition to their previous work at Chapman University, the firm has also undertaken projects at such other Golden State campuses as Cal Baptist and Cal Poly.