The crown jewel of Belmont University’s performing arts district, The Fisher Center is an architectural and acoustical tour de force in Nashville, which is known the world over as Music City, USA.
The performing arts center, designed by Nashville-based ESa, was the final commission by then-University President Bob Fisher, for whom it is named. “He gave us one clear mandate,” says ESa principal David Minnigan, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP, “and that was when you Google the ‘best performing arts center on a university campus,’ Belmont’s performing arts center pops up first.”
Belmont has been heralded as one of America’s most beautiful university campuses, and the ESa team, which was comprised of Minnigan, project managers Darrell Lambert, AIA, and Randy Nale, AIA, and interior designer Janet Wennerlund, IIDA, ASID, NCIDQ, created a Classical structure that brings architectural significance to the campus.
The other buildings in Belmont University’s performing arts district—an existing church whose two sanctuaries were converted to an 850-seat concert hall and a 325-seat drama theater, and a new 5000-seat multi-use event center—were designed by ESa over a period that spanned more than two decades.
As with other Belmont projects, ESa took some of its design cues for The Fisher Center from the original structure on the property, an 1850s Italian Renaissance mansion designed by Prussian-born architect Adolphus Heiman as a summer residence for Joseph and Adelicia Acklen.
The 155,000-square-foot Fisher Center, which is on the opposite end of the campus, is, Minnigan says, “a zipper between the other performing arts buildings, and it completes a beautiful suite of spaces. It’s a tribute to what Belmont has become—an amazing school of the arts—under Fisher’s leadership.”
The Neo-Renaissance-style building, whose Indiana limestone façade stands majestically on a base of Blue Pearl granite, announces itself with ornate composite columns, a trio of soaring arched windows, and a pair of ornamental octagonal cupolas flanking its dual wings.
“We like to say the columns are in the Belmont Order because we incorporated iconography from the campus in the creation of the custom column capitals,” Minnigan says. These capitals are appointed with honeybees and honeycombs (representing the beehives that Belmont maintains on the green roofs of several university buildings); maple leaves (ESa landscaped its projects with October Glory maples, which turn bright red, one of the school’s colors, in fall); droplets (they can be interpreted as honey or as the splashing of the Parisian-style fountains on campus); and roses (in homage to the original mansion’s rose garden that has been revived).
The Fisher Center’s main hall has the shape of a European opera house, a design that optimizes sight lines and allows for excellent acoustics. “This allowed us to bring the seats closer to the stage, adding a sense of intimacy,” Minnigan says. “All the seats are good.”
The tall order to make The Fisher Center the best in the land and flexible enough to accommodate a variety of public programs came with some interesting challenges, one of the more difficult of which was the extremely tight timeline. The university wanted the center completed in only four years.
“We’ve designed two other projects of this scope and nature,” Minnigan says. “One took six years; the other was finished in almost seven. And we were doing this one in the middle of the pandemic when there were supply-chain challenges. We went so far as to choose a second palette of stones for the lobby floor just in case, but, in the end, we were able to go with our original selections.”
Another hurdle was the topography: There was a 60-foot grade change from the front to the back of the property. “The lobby and stage needed to be on the same level for ease of operations and flexibility,” Minnigan says. “And the loading dock had to be at the lowest level of the grade, which was at the front of the building. That meant a very decorative way to screen it was needed. So we turned to the urban palaces of Europe and designed a tall stone wall with a large iron gate, allowing access for large trucks without compromising the front façade aesthetics.”
For the acoustical design, ESa worked closely with Russell Todd, principal of Akustiks, based in Norwalk, Connecticut. Rising more than 70 feet from the floor to its apex, the main hall’s ceiling dome is actually acoustically transparent. This allows sound to pass through its decorative grillwork and uses the resonant chamber above to enhance the natural acoustics of the room. For amplified concerts, this upper-level chamber can be sound-deadened with the deployment of draperies, which store in hard-shell pockets above.
“The ceiling, which is where everyone’s eyes are drawn as a reference point, always looks the same,” Minnigan says, adding that soft goods, including draperies and banners on the side walls of the stage as well as sound-absorbing wall panels, can be deployed into the room from side curtain pockets for amplified music performances.
In the main performance space, the balconies droop as they approach the stage, greatly improving the acoustics and sightlines.
To test the decibel level and reverberation times, the Akustiks team fired a shotgun loaded with blanks into the space. “We’ve used this technique on three other projects,” Minnigan says. “It may seem unorthodox, but it works well.”
Lighting is an integral part of the lobby design, as emphasized by the three 29-foot-tall chandeliers. The expansive lobby, which opens to two wings that may be used as event, rehearsal, or performance spaces, is illuminated by three arched windows that feature dichroic art-glass elements on the interior that act as prisms.
“In the daytime, they refract light and create amazing colors,” Minnigan says. “It’s spectacular. At night, as you pass the building, it makes the three brass chandeliers look like jewels dancing across the façade. It’s magnificent.”
The lobby’s vaulted ceilings are finished with BASWAPHON acoustic plaster, which absorbs sound and lessens reverberations. This allows for effortless conversation throughout the lobby space.
The color palette—two shades of blue with a hint of green, a subtle nod to the university’s red and blue colors—evokes a feeling of layered luxury akin to a Fabergé egg.
The lobby’s flooring incorporates four granites: Alaska White from India; Blue Eyes from Canada; Dakota Mahogany from South Dakota; and Lemurian Blue from Madagascar, forming a beautiful bejeweled necklace around the rear wall or “neck” of the main hall.
When The Fisher Center opened, in September 2021 in time for the university’s biennial “Christmas at Belmont” musical production that showcased 600 performers on stage, it was hailed by the press and public alike.
At the ribbon cutting, Mayor John Cooper, noting that Nashville is the Athens of the South, proudly declared The Fisher Center for the Performing Arts “an instant landmark.”