Blending Preservation and Sustainable Design at The Pocantico Center
In New York City, no name is more ubiquitous than Rockefeller. The family’s history of public service and philanthropy is written across the city in such institutions as Rockefeller Center, Rockefeller University, and The Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller Center has its own subway station; Rockefeller Plaza, its own street signs. The stone walls at the entrance to The Pocantico Center, a 216-acre property on the family’s ancestral estate in Westchester County, New York, bear no such marker. But in its subtle way, Pocantico is no less a landmark.
Among its notable structures are Kykuit, the 40-room Beaux-Arts villa completed in 1913 for John D. Rockefeller Sr. and his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller; the stone Coach Barn, built in 1902 and later modified to accommodate automobiles; and the Marcel Breuer House, designed by the renowned architect for a 1949 Museum of Modern Art exhibition and relocated here the following year. All are owned by the National Trust, components of the multipart bequests of John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s grandsons John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Laurance S. Rockefeller, and David Rockefeller that over time became The Pocantico Center. All are operated as a National Trust Historic Site by the nonprofit Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), which hosts artist residencies, public programs, and conferences. Local nonprofit Historic Hudson Valley conducts public tours of Kykuit and the Coach Barn.
Now open for the first time is one of Pocantico’s earliest and most distinctive buildings, the Orangerie, which in October of 2022 made its main debut as the David Rockefeller Creative Arts Center (or DR Center for short). The subject of a $26 million adaptive reuse and restoration project funded by the RBF and contributions from friends and family of David Rockefeller, the building contains space for public performances, an art exhibition space, and a working studio for artists in residence. Reflecting the RBF’s commitment to the environment, the project was designed not only in compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, but also to meet the rigorous LEED Platinum standard of sustainability and achieve net-zero energy consumption.
The Orangerie came by its original name honestly. Architect William Welles Bosworth modeled the Beaux-Arts building loosely on its 17th-century namesake, Louis XIV’s Orangerie at the Palace of Versailles. “When the building was completed in 1908, 110 orange trees were brought over from Europe, and they would stay in here during the winter,” says Judy Clark, executive director of The Pocantico Center, gesturing at the building’s expansive interior. Perched about 30 feet above, six enormous pyramidal skylights—reglazed but original to the building—now illuminate freshly painted, bright-white walls and a polished concrete floor. Originally, Clark says, “this was a totally utilitarian, agrarian building with a dirt floor.”
Planted in large wooden containers, the orange trees were hauled each spring up the steep hill to Kykuit, where they would grace the main house’s Orange Tree Terrace until colder weather signaled their return trip to the Orangerie.
The annual migration continued until the 1930s, when the family donated the trees to various botanical gardens. The 8,413-square-foot building then served as a vast, stately storage space.
In recent years, as The Pocantico Center’s programs expanded—to include artist residencies; public performances; and conferences centered on the RBF’s values of democratic practice, peacebuilding, and sustainable development—the Orangerie’s untapped potential became clear. In 2012 the fund launched a summer performance series showcasing the work of its Culpeper Arts & Culture grantees, including dancers, playwrights, and musicians. “We did four big outdoor performances every summer, and they filled up instantly,” Clark says, “but we were beholden to the weather.” Indoor venues on the campus were limited in capacity and lacked other key elements. “We really couldn’t accommodate visual artists because we didn’t have a visual art studio.”
“When the building was completed in 1908, 110 orange trees were brought over from Europe, and they would stay in here during the winter.”Judy Clark
In 2015 the RBF decided to convert the Orangerie into a performance, rehearsal, and exhibition space. It hired the Brooklyn, New York–based architecture firm FXCollaborative, known for its expertise in environmentally sustainable design. The fund’s board of directors granted its approval to the project in 2017, and construction began in 2020.
First, however, came a massive cleanout. “This was just storage, from floor to ceiling,” Clark says, for items from screened doors, plumbing fixtures, and outdoor furniture to landmark works of modern sculpture, including Jean Dubuffet’s monumental L’Érection Logologique Bleue. The latter, conserved by EverGreene Architectural Arts, now stands prominently on a gentle rise just inside Pocantico’s gates. At least one example of each of the architectural elements stored in the building was retained for preservation purposes.
Meanwhile, the architectural team was at work with its clients honing a vision for the updated building. FXCollaborative Senior Partner Sylvia Smith says she, project architect Brandon Massey, and their colleagues began by noting the remarkable strengths of the existing building, especially “the rhythm of the skylights—and that light!—and of course the very strong rhythm of the arched windows that defines the character of the building.” The eloquent simplicity of the interior led the team first toward a minimalist approach. “In a way this building was like a big tent,” Smith says, “and the first thought was to host performances here and just take the variability of rain out of the equation. So it was a summer, maybe shoulder-season, focus.”
But other opportunities beckoned. “A beautiful part of this region is the four seasons,” says Smith, who thought, “Do we really want to shut it down for the winter?” To meet the net-zero goal with a year-round building would require a significantly greater investment in insulation and mechanical systems, she says, “so we just kept running energy modeling scenarios. [At that point] it wasn’t only about stabilizing the building; it was also how to bring these uses the fund supports into the building in a way that is still environmentally responsive.” Ultimately, the board signed off on a year-round building that would reflect the full range of the RBF’s arts mission—from creation to exhibition to performance to community engagement—while satisfying a remarkably ambitious environmental program, as well.
“As these multiple uses came up, it went from the tent idea to loose subdivisions [of space] to ‘Whoa, wait a minute.’” What made Smith pull up short was imagining a resident artist, perhaps a painter or fiber artist, absorbed in the act of creation, music turned up high, with a dance company simultaneously attempting to rehearse a work in progress. “So then it became, ‘All right, we’ve got to have separate zones,’” she says. “‘How do we subdivide the space?’”
The solution was two partitions that delineate and sound-isolate the art studio and gallery space. To maintain sightlines between the monumental doorways that bracket the building’s 205-foot central axis, each of the new walls is bisected vertically by a wide glass doorway and topped by a full-width glass clerestory. The resulting transparency accomplishes one of the architects’ key goals, Smith says: “The notion was to always have this sense of continuity through the space.”
The rest of the original Orangerie, nearly half of its floor area, is devoted to rehearsal and live performance. The main entry doorway, centered on the building’s long north wall, opens to a central gathering space. “It’s essentially a lobby for events,” Smith says, “but if they’re doing tours, docents can orient people there.” The concrete-slab floor transitions to a sprung maple surface at the performance area, where a nesting system of theater seating telescopes out to accommodate an audience of 195. AV equipment and performers’ washrooms are housed in two discreet, box-like structures that flank the entry doors at the west wall.
A grid of treelike steel columns original to the building organizes the interior volume, but to free up the requisite open floor area, Smith says, “it became clear that we would have to remove six of the columns.” Working with the project’s structural engineering firm, Silman, Smith and her team incorporated the top sections of the cut-off columns into three bow trusses, which transfer the roof loads to the exterior masonry walls. Painted white like the rest of the interior, the reinforced ceiling structure supports a secondary grid for stage lighting, speakers, and a curtain that can be drawn to create a backstage area. A concealed system of acoustic ceiling battens varies from one part of the building to another. “The rooms are actually tuned differently, depending on what kind of sound is going to be in that space,” Smith says.
“We did very careful studies on how the building envelope needed to perform in order to control the amount of energy required to support the program.”Sylvia Smith
The wood ceiling is slightly lower than the original, to accommodate a thick layer of thermal insulation. In similar fashion, the building’s masonry walls were overlaid on the interior with insulation, a vapor-control membrane, and drywall, as well as nonstructural plywood in some places. “We did very careful studies on how the building envelope needed to perform in order to control the amount of energy required to support the program,” says Smith. Critical to the plan was the replacement of the 11 majestic arch-topped windows with custom-made, energy-efficient versions patterned on the originals. Ten of the new windows are operable for passive cooling, and retractable shades block unwanted solar gain.
In preserving the building’s essential character, perhaps the most important decision was to resist adding new support spaces—a coatroom, restrooms, storage, and mechanical equipment—to the original building. Instead, the team collected them in a connected annex dubbed the Pavilion. The 2,300-square-foot addition adjoins the Orangerie along its long south-facing wall, a position that presented several advantages, Smith says. In contrast with the highly designed east, west, and north elevations, the south facade had no openings and little detailing beyond the base and entablature that ring the building.
That blank-slate quality permitted Smith and her team to conceive a Modernist addition that disturbs none of the building’s significant original features. Adjoined only at the Pavilion’s roof and by floor-to-ceiling glass doorways at its east and west ends, the addition seems to float apart from the main building. It forms a corridor lined on one side with coat closets and a kitchenette for performers and on the opposite by the distinctive pebbledash stucco of the main building’s exposed south wall. And because the Pavilion is largely hidden from the approach, visitors arriving today are greeted by a north facade essentially as it appeared in 1908, with all of its finishes and trim restored, altered only by a low-key glass-cube vestibule at the building’s main entry.
While its quiet presence helps preserve the Orangerie’s original character and features, the Pavilion also dramatically expands the building’s engagement with the site. Its boxlike form, clad in horizontal boards of sustainably grown black locust wood, opens onto a broad, trellis-shaded terrace for alfresco gatherings and performances. A set of multi-leaf pivoting doors opens the indoor performance area to the terrace, creating a broad, high proscenium and turning the former Orangerie into the equivalent of a stage for outdoor audiences.
The view from the building outward is equally compelling. The landscape beyond the terrace centers on a rain garden, a shallow bowl in the earth planted with native vegetation that slows and filters rainwater runoff from the site. (The water goes back to an aquifer, rather than burdening the public stormwater drainage system.) And amid these tall grasses and wildflowers stand the photovoltaic panels that are slated to offset 100 percent of the building’s energy use, a prominent reminder—among a multitude of less visible features—of the environmentally restorative philosophy that helped inspire the project.
Under its new rubric the DR Center supports programming as forward-looking as the restoration itself, welcoming the local community to open rehearsals, forums, lectures, and workshops. Its debut mainstage public performance in November of 2022, Untold Tales (produced by RBF grantee iD Studio Theater in partnership with Folklore Urbano NYC), incorporated immigrant narratives, dance, music, and theater, with ticket prices set at $15. The center’s inaugural art exhibition, Inspired Encounters: Women Artists and the Legacies of Modern Art, presents pieces by midcentury women artists (mostly from Kykuit’s world-class collection) and contemporary women artists. Admission to the gallery is free but requires advance reservations.
The RBF’s newly established Pocantico Prize for Visual Artists, which awards $25,000 and a two-month residency at the DR Center, alternates between an early or mid-career artist working in the Hudson Valley and one chosen from farther afield, focusing on artists who are part of historically excluded groups. The inaugural recipient was Athena LaTocha, whose works, influenced by her youth in Alaska, “explore the relationship between human-made and natural worlds,” according to her website. Since 2008, The Pocantico Center has hosted a dozen or more artist residencies each year, as well as other grant-funded residencies, including one at the Marcel Breuer House that is co-sponsored by the National Trust.
In her role as National Trust chief preservation officer, Katherine Malone-France enjoys a unique perspective on the DR Center as both a significant historic structure and an emblem of the RBF’s mission. She characterizes the just-completed project as “a series of well-made decisions—in terms of new ways to use this building to engage and support the arts, creativity, and community, and also in terms of sustainability.”
And while the building no longer shelters citrus trees, Malone-France notes, its new life is very much aligned with its first.
“One of the things I think is so important about adaptive reuse is the way in which new uses so often are deeply resonant with past usage. This building was built to be a place of nurturing, so I think it is incredibly powerful that this new use is also about nurturing and growth—of artists and creativity and community.”
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