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The Back Story: Constructing the Performing Arts Center

From one unified design, the realities of time and budget forced the Judy Bayley Theater and Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall into separate buildings.

UNLV History  |  Mar 7, 2017  |  By Peter Michel
Rendering of the performing arts center

Renderings show the performing arts complex phase I, right, and phase II, left — what are now the Judy Bayley Theater and the Artemus Ham Concert Hall. The plan to split the performing arts complex into two phases was necessitated by budget issues in the late 1960s that faced the original proposal. (UNLV University Libraries Special Collections)

Every building on campus has its own unique origin story but the UNLV Performing Arts Center's construction was particularly tortuous. The result was something none of the original participants imagined.

Construction of the new campus took years of planning, budgeting, and fundraising, and involved everyone from consultants and contractors to regents, faculty committees, and community leaders. It was often to the frustration of the design architect, who saw his original concept changed beyond recognition in the face of budgetary and functional realities.

Local architect James McDaniel was responsible for what may be the defining mid-century modern style of UNLV's early campus. His firm also designed our original round library, which now houses the Boyd School of Law, and the old student union, which was torn down to build our current one. 

The Performing Arts Center’s story begins in 1959 when the then Southern Division of the University of Nevada initiated space planning for Building No. 6 in its campus construction program. It was to be a building with space for art, music, and “speech and dramatic arts.” Despite the fact that there was no music faculty, nor a music department, the campus Fine Arts Building Committee began its work in earnest in 1962.

students walk in fron of Ham HallMcDaniel's a preliminary design was approved by the State Planning Board and the Board of Regents in January 1963. But the university engineer commenting on the revised plans noted, “We doubt that this building can be built with a $391,000 construction budget. We cannot conclude that a building of this design can be built at approximately one-third the cubic foot cost of simpler structures!”

This would be a constant theme as the university’s construction ambitions outran its funding. It became a moot point in 1963 when funds were not appropriated by the state legislature, and it would be another five years before the plans were taken up again.

Despite the lack of state funding, the idea of a performing arts center had taken hold in a number of community leaders who saw it as an opportunity to enhance the cultural life of the city. A new fundraising campaign was launched and in 1968 McDaniel produced a series of concept designs for an integrated performing arts complex combining a drama theater with a concert hall.

By fall of 1968 the cost estimates for the proposed complex incorporating all the requirements of the campus committee exceeded $6 million, well beyond the appropriated construction budget. So McDaniel simplified his plans. The faculty building committee reported, “The building will now have a very severe but clean-cut line. It looks quite effective.”

As McDaniel was revising his plans, Provost Donald Baepler worried that the entire project would be sidelined so the university resigned itself to constructing just a theater as phase I, with the concert hall in phase II.

In early 1970, McDaniel submitted his final plans for a drama theater. The inevitable delays pushed the opening of Judy Bayley Theater to April 8, 1972, when an audience of special guests and donors were invited to a special preview of the opening play, A Flea in Her Ear. The official public opening night was April 13.

After the years of frustration attending the realization of the Judy Bayley Theater, the completion of phase II, the concert hall, was relatively easy. McDaniel immediately set to work to design a hall that would meet the budgetary constraints. As spiraling inflation of construction costs whittled down the possibilities, it was decided to construct a simple 2,000-seat hall with a balcony, and to allow for future additions to the building. The university system architect told McDaniel, “I was gratified to note the simplicity and potential elegance of the exterior, devoid of unnecessary tricks and gimmicks.”   

The original completion date of January 13, 1976 was pushed back to May and then October. The opening concert was held on Oct. 18, 1976 and featured the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.


Rendering of Ham Hall

First look

The original 1968 concept drawings for the performing arts complex called for a more integrated design between the theater and concert hall.


Judy Bayley Theater

The Judy Bayley Theatre

The exterior façade and elevation of the Judy Bayley Theatre changed dramatically from McDaniel’s earlier renderings. As the building in its final form was simplified and separated from the concert hall, it acquired its own individual look, quite distinct from the original unified complex. The amount of exterior glass was reduced, decorative screening eliminated and replaced with fluted concrete. Another factor that contributed to its changed appearance was the construction of a neighboring building on the campus, the Carlson Education Building, designed by Jack Miller, in modernist formed concrete.

In July, 1969, as McDaniel was preparing his final drawings, he and Miller met to discuss the compatibility of the two buildings. They agreed that the two buildings were “architecturally at peace.” McDaniel had also suggested changing the facia of his building to a curved shape “which will further harmonize the two buildings” and provide “continuity.”  


Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall

The Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall

The Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall, like the Judy Bayley Theater, assumed a quite different look from the earlier design concepts. After all the earlier proposals, designs, and redesigns, McDaniel may have felt that now he was free to design something totally new. Ham Hall combined a reflective glass and steel frame with a concrete block to create a very simple and functional design that met with universal approval. Although the university architect wanted McDaniel to use the same fluted concrete he had used on the façade of the Judy Bayley Theatre on Ham Hall, McDaniel demurred saying it would detract from the simplicity of the design. The university did eventually use the fluted concrete on the exterior face of the nearby Cottage Grove parking garage.