The Paul Mellon Center for the Arts was commissioned by The Choate School for boys as it prepared to merge with Rosemary Hall school for girls on a neighboring hillside. Although the building and the merger were separate initiatives, they evolved together and became inseparable.
The 70,000-square-foot architectural concrete building consists of a rectangular volume carved away and pulled apart to create two self-contained units diagonally bisected by a broad outdoor walkway. On one side is a theater with radiating seating clearly expressed in the quarter-circular form. Opposite is a 6-story triangular teaching wing housing classrooms, studios, lounges, and a highly visible ground floor student union that beckons to students through floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Pei conceived the building as a gateway between the two prep school campuses, a place where boys and girls would meet – and a “trap” where students not interested in the arts could use the building casually, without any commitment beyond just passing through, and in the process to expose them to art and encourage their involvement. The two building wings are connected underground by shared facilities, including a recital hall and experimental theater. Above ground, they are linked by the walkway and a single monumental pier that supports the theater’s triangular roof canopy and ties the entire building together. Clearly influenced by Pei’s interest in Cubist sculpture, the whole is a 3-dimensional abstraction animated by the play of solids and voids, lights and shadows.
Although Pei initially refused the Arts Center commission due to the pressures of other work, he later agreed to visit the site and ultimately accepted the job. He was perhaps persuaded by the fact that the Art Center’s benefactor, Choate alumnus Paul Mellon, was then considering Pei to expand the National Gallery of Art. Pei began work on the Arts Center in February 1968, followed three months later by the East Building in Washington.
In 1973, the Mellon Center was awarded the First Prize for Structure in Building by the New York Association of Consulting Engineers. In the following year, it received a national Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.
Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Partner; Ralph Heisel, Design Architect
I.M. Pei & Partners