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Roof of early Frank Gehry concert venue collapses in Maryland

Architecture East News
Roof of early Frank Gehry concert venue collapses in Maryland. The collapsed roof of the Merriweather Post Pavilion by Gehry, Walsh and O’Malley (Ian Kennedy)

One of architect Frank Gehry’s earliest public buildings collapsed this month as it was nearing the end of a five-year, $55 million renovation, forcing the owners to revise their plans.

The roof of the Merriweather Post Pavilion, a 19,000-seat open-air concert venue in Columbia, Maryland, crashed down in the middle of the night on Saturday, January 13, burying the seating below. No one was injured.

Designed by Gehry, Walsh and O’Malley, and opened in 1967, the concert pavilion was being renovated to help it compete with other performing arts centers. The design team, led by JP2 Architects of Baltimore, opted to keep the original roof because it was a defining element of Gehry’s design. But the designers also wanted to raise it to improve sightlines.  Gehry, now head of Gehry Partners, is not part of the design team, but had been briefed on the project and toured the site several years ago.

The roof collapse makes the concert pavilion one of the first major Frank Gehry buildings to be substantially lost or altered — despite the owner’s efforts to retain its architectural integrity throughout the renovation.

Rendering of the renovated Merriweather Post Pavilion (Courtesy The Howard Hughes Corporation)

Rendering of the renovated Merriweather Post Pavilion (Courtesy The Howard Hughes Corporation)

The roof was in the process of being raised on hydraulic lifts 20 feet above its original height when it collapsed. The pavilion’s operators said this week that they intend to build a new roof in time for the summer concert season, and that it will be at the 51-foot height to which the original roof was being moved.

Investigators have not disclosed a cause for the collapse, but there has been speculation that wind was a factor. The chairman of the pavilion’s operating company, Seth Hurwitz of I. M. P., alluded to that possibility in a message on Facebook.

“The winds of fate prevailed and decided that, instead of simply raising the roof, we should just go ahead and build a new one,” he wrote. “Was not our decision but the bright side is all the money we save on imploding.” Hurwitz added that “everything will be ready for season opening,” with the first show scheduled for July.

One of the first buildings to open in Columbia, the 50-year-old concert pavilion is now a key element in a multi-phase expansion of the unincorporated city led by its master developer, the Howard Hughes Corporation. Hughes transferred ownership of the pavilion in 2016 to a nonprofit group, the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission.

Gehry had an office in Baltimore when he designed the pavilion, one of four structures in Columbia that he worked on for developer James Rouse. Another one of his commissions, the former Rouse Company headquarters, has been converted to a mixed-use development with a Whole Foods Market as its anchor tenant. Gehry could not be reached for comment about the roof collapse.

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