Eight years in the making, Hancher making triumphant return (WITH GALLERY)

New University of Iowa performing arts center ready to welcome public after 2008 flood destroyed previous venue

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IOWA CITY — the University of Iowa’s largest classroom has created an eight-year learning curve the likes of which no one could have imagined in June 2008.

That’s when raging floodwaters from the Iowa River engulfed Hancher Auditorium, the UI’s premiere performing arts center, sending staff scrambling to find other venues in which to present world-class artists until a new edifice could be financed, designed and built.

Hancher’s roaming days are over.

Next weekend, the doors will fling open on a new auditorium age.


An hourlong dedication ceremony will begin at 3 p.m., Friday, Sept. 9, on the stage, followed by an open house from 4 to 7 p.m. Another open house will run from 2 to 5 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 11. Admission is free and no tickets are needed.

The dedication will hold “some fun surprises,” said Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director. “It’s not going to be your traditional open house.”

Staff, Hancher Guild volunteers and student workers will be on hand, but it’s the public’s chance to explore the $175 million facility on self-guided tours.

By planning the festivities around a big Hawkeye game day, he’s hoping “thousands” will attend.

“We scheduled this on the Iowa-Iowa State football weekend for a reason. Hancher’s got a lot of friends out there across the state. (Football fans) will come from all corners of the state. We’re hoping that a lot of them can fit this into their busy schedule,” he said.

“It’s important for kids, too, to see the dressing rooms, to be able to get onstage. There’s a lot of people that will never be onstage, and this is the time for it because that’s the best seat in the house,” he said.


The magic begins even before visitors walk through the doors.

Situated on higher ground overlooking the former Hancher site, the new building’s sweeping exterior lines create drama whether sunlight or moonlight is dancing off its glittering cloak of 14,000 brushed steel panels. Strips of cypress wood — the length of 600 football fields laid end-to-end — begin under the pointed cantilevers and continue on the interior ceilings, creating an organic flow inside and out.

Lights embedded in the wood twinkle like so many fireflies on a sultry summer night.

“(Architect) Cesar Pelli said he’s never been able to design a building in such a gorgeous setting. Every time I go through it, I can feel the excitement that he has for this site,” Swanson said during the construction phase. “ ... He really wed the indoors with the outdoors, and you can see that as you go through the building.”

The superstructure’s elegant, curved lines reflect the beauty of Hancher’s surroundings and the sweeping curve of the Iowa River. It’s also designed to complement the geometric silhouette of the nearby Levitt Center for University Advancement.

No one is more pleased than Pelli, whose designs include the soaring Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the World Financial Center in Manhattan.

“I’m delighted,” he said during Hancher’s midpoint celebration Oct. 8, 2014, in which a steel beam autographed by about 1,000 people was hoisted into the building.

Floor-to-ceiling windows not only bring in natural light, they present sweeping vistas of the verdant setting, extending to the lush lawn where the former Hancher, built in 1972, beckoned audiences to experience the world’s artistry, from Marcel Marceau to Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Gone is the narrow outer lobby that clogged easily and often as patrons stopped to pick up tickets and make their way into the building. That was a drawback, said Wallace Chappell of Iowa City, who served as Hancher’s executive director from 1986 to 2001.

“The new theater is a big improvement,” he said, “particularly in the entryway. The new one is going to work much better, in terms of flow of getting people in and out, with the openness of it.”

Now patrons will enter directly into a huge lobby where gleaming white surfaces stretch from the main floor on up the grand staircase.

Swanson noted that while the original structure also was special, “this building takes you to another place. There’s such an experience in the building. The architecture is such an adventure — the different heights and just the beauty of the ceiling, the wood and the terrazzo floor, is just so soothing ...

“It’s a very friendly building. It’s a building that really lends itself to interactions and people enjoying the company of others.”

On the second floor, they can relax before and after shows in the Stanley Cafe, which seats up to 300 people indoors and on the terrace.

The centerpiece, however, is the auditorium, with its curved balconies and curved lighting fixtures that seem to float in space.

“The auditorium is a great lot of fun,” said Chappell, who has had several advance peeks inside. “Cesar Pelli is a very experienced theater architect, and it really shows in what he’s done here.”


FEMA funding rules allowed for industry-standard upgrades onstage and behind the scenes, which ultimately will improve the performance experience for artists and audiences, as well as the educational experiences for students working the shows and studying the performing arts.

Acoustics can now be reconfigured for the type of show, from more intimate performances by pianist Emanuel Ax on Dec. 6 and cellist Yo-Yo Ma on March 5, to huge touring musicals with lots of bells and whistles such as “The Book of Mormon” in October and the new Joffrey “Nutcracker” in December, as well as symphonic concerts by the Cleveland Orchestra on Jan. 20 and the Boston Pops on March 25.

Because today’s touring shows may arrive on as many as 15 semis, the number of loading docks has been increased from one in the former building to three in the new building.

Amenities such as expanded dressing rooms and a visiting production office will help the backstage space feel like “a home away from home” for the artists, Swanson said. They also will be able to use the new rehearsal hall. The former Hancher shared a rehearsal hall with the attached Voxman Music Building, but as Voxman has relocated in downtown Iowa City post-flood, the new Hancher was able to add its own multipurpose rehearsal hall.


Despite all of the curves in the building’s architecture, Hancher’s biggest curve is the learning curve required to operate the new space and its upgrades.

The workforce is “exploding” from about 50 needed to augment the host facilities’ staff in the post-flood years to a couple hundred now that Hancher needs a full homesite staff. Students make up a large part of that force, working with the public and audiences, backstage with the artists, and as assistant supervisors for the student ushers.

Operating in a new building is no easy feat.

“Everything is going to be ‘the first time,’” Swanson said.

Part of the staff has been training since spring, but the students who have just been hired have to be trained quickly. A few events have provided a sense of what’s to come when the season begins in mid-September. Those “test” events have included an alumni awards banquet in June; a donor event; an acoustics testing rehearsal with the Iowa City Community Band onstage; a “white coat” ceremony for the UI medical school and a wedding, both in August; and a recent “hard-hat concert” concert, featuring Mucca Pazza musicians from Chicago, to thank those who have had a hand in building and launching the new facility.

“It’s going to even take a year or two before you really get a sense and you get a real comfort level with everything,” Swanson said.

“Theaters are complicated. We are caretakers of artists and caretakers of our audiences. We want to make sure the experience is great, so we have to have some experiences under our belt before we can even be a judge of how things are going to go.

“You can’t create an experience without the artist and without the audience, and we haven’t really had many yet. There’s a lot yet to come, but yet the excitement is certainly building. The patience is wearing thin. We’ve waited a long time, along with everybody else.

“The anticipation has been building and building, and now all of a sudden that it’s almost here, it’s really hard to believe.”

See also: Hancher holds special place in people's hearts


Address: 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City; seven feet above the 500-year flood level

Cost: $176 million; funded by FEMA, the University of Iowa, insurance, private donations

Architects: Design development: Pelli Clarke Pelli, New Haven, Conn.; leading through completion: OPN Architects, Cedar Rapids

Construction: After more than a year of exploring building site possibilities, the process then required 30 months of design, 30 months of construction, beginning in May 2013, requiring more than 1 million person hours and at its peak, with more than 200 skilled workers on-site on a given day

Square feet: 191,977

LEED: Gold certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design

Use: Hancher will host about 50 performances each year.

Auditorium: Concrete shell surrounded by steel exterior; walls are 24-inch-thick concrete; 1,800-seat main theater; stage is 54 feet deep, with a sprung floor to absorb impact, especially important for dancers

Strauss Hall: 100- to 200-seat adjustable configuration for theatrical, dance and music performances, as well as rehearsals and special events

Exterior: Hancher has very few right angles, a design aspect that helps acoustics in the performance spaces. The curved exterior is lined with 14,000 stainless-steel panels, including 9,000 one-of-a-kind panels. The spear tip-shaped cantilever extends more than 70 feet from the closest supporting column.

Interior: More than 180,000 linear feet — the length of 600 football fields laid end-to-end — of cypress was used in the interior and exterior ceilings; native Anamosa stone mined in Iowa is used in several spaces

Materials: 4,400 tons of structural steel; 20,000 cubic yards of concrete; 40 inches of concrete in basement hydrostatic slab; more than 3.6 million pounds of compression weigh on the southernmost column

Amenities: Several small dressing rooms, four large dressing rooms for performers, each having six showers; costume shop contains a 60-gallon industrial soup kettle for dyeing fabric.

SOURCE: University of Iowa


Hancher address: 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City

Opening ceremony: 3 to 4 p.m., Friday, Sept. 9, including speakers and performances on the Hancher stage. Free

Open houses: 4 to 7 p.m., Friday, Sept. 9, and 2 to 5 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 11. Free, with self-guided tours

Grand opening parking: Free in the UI parking lots south of the Levitt Center and immediately west of Hancher Auditorium

Outdoor concert: Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue and Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 7:30 p.m., Sept. 16, Hancher Green. Free, bring seating

Gala: SOLD OUT: Steve Martin and Martin Short in “An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life,” featuring Martin’s Steep Canyon Rangers band and Jeff Babko; 7:30 p.m., Sept. 24

Season: Hancher.uiowa.edu

Travel: Road construction will affect routes to Hancher and the UI campus. See daily updates on Icgov.org/project/iowa-city-gateway-project

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