LINCOLN PARK — Thursday marked the official opening of DePaul University's new $72 million theater school building, a structure aptly described as "quite incredible."
It's a dramatic upgrade from the old "cozy" building, which was originally built to house an elementary school. The new building, at the corner of Racine and Fullerton Avenues, took two years to build.
"There's no other training facility [like this] in the country. I'm not overblowing that," said Robert Shook, a partner with Schuler Shook, a theater planning firm.
The 165,000-square-foot structure will feature numerous productions — open to the public — in both its 250-seat main theater and 100-seat Sondra & Denis Healy Theatre on the fourth floor.
While the theater school's old building lacked air conditioning and was carpeted (and had a specific "smell" according to one student,) the new building includes a one-of-a-kind drawbridge for tall scenery to pass through, and state-of-the-art sound, lighting and workshops throughout.
"I've never seen anything like this before," said Harrison Wegel, a sophomore in DePaul's theater school.
Wegel's first class in the new building was Thursday, and he said just walking into the building was "surreal."
Wegel said he was visiting campus two years ago to audition for the school as part of the application process and wasn't aware of the new building until he saw a poster with a sign that said "coming in 2013."
While the main reason he attended was the school's reputation — DePaul's program was named among the top 25 in the nation by the Hollywood Reporter — Wegel admits the new building was a draw.
The theater school currently has about 340 students enrolled, and that number will remain the same, according to the school's dean John Culbert.
There was no actual theater in DePaul's old theater building. Students would practice in converted classrooms before heading downtown to the 1,425-seat Merle Reskin Theater.
"We are finally putting the theater back in the theater school," Culbert said.
The first performance to be held at the new theater will be "Our Town," which is often called the Great American play. Opening night is Oct. 4.
The new building's theaters will also allow students to perform on stages that will more closely reflect the stages they will end up on after graduation, according to Culbert.
The mainly glass, concrete and steel building's design emphasizes openness and transparency, and the open air lobbies are convertible into stages and visible from the street.
The building's scene workshop is also visible to pedestrians along Racine.
"The process of training people is at the forefront, not hidden behind a velvet rope," Culbert said.
The structure was designed by the architectural firm Pelli Clarke Pelli, which also designed the World Financial Center in New York and the Petronas Towers in Malaysia.
"The project is quite incredible for a number of reasons. It’s not just a site on campus. This is the western gateway to the university, which is incredibly important," said Mitchell Hirsch, a principal with Pelli Clarke Pelli. "From beginning to end, it was a thrill."