2015 Archives

SMU McFarlin Auditorium restoration showcases new architectural details, some hidden for decades

February 3, 2015

DALLAS (SMU) — SMU’s McFarlin Memorial Auditorium has a gleaming new look thanks to a multi-million dollar restoration project that took a coterie of craftspeople more than a year to complete.

“It really is the new, well, old McFarlin,” says Denton Bricker, director of operations for the auditorium. The restoration has breathed new life into the 88-year-old place Bricker calls “one of SMU’s hidden gems.”

McFarlin Auditorium has seen a number of significant upgrades over the years —with enhancements to the lobby, mezzanine, restrooms, upholstered seating and speaker system in the past decade — but nothing as heady as this. The project was supervised and managed by restoration specialists Conrad Schmitt Studios Inc., the Wisconsin-based firm also responsible for Dallas Hall and Perkins Chapel restoration initiatives.

Elegant paint in softer, complementary hues and gold-relief now lend historic accuracy to the theater’s overall design, making it look more like it did shortly after its opening in 1926.

Arched towers of ornate iron grillwork near the stage now have a gilt finish, as do architectural elements including molding rosettes and column-capital reliefs — and all of it “pops,” thanks to more than 160 new light fixtures. The gold-leaf styling replaces the Aztec gold paint added in 1962, when the theater had its last major remodel after a heating and cooling system was added. During that time some of the interior’s most distinctive décor details were lost under paint or drywall to achieve a 1960s vision of a cleaner, more streamlined and contemporary appearance.

Also new are trompe l’oeil art panels along the walls, which create the illusion of large, arched wall niches with gold Grecian urns. In addition, the wall’s raised paneling, designed to look like stacked stone, now has a marbleized finish mimicking the look and color of alabaster.

The renovation’s next phase will focus on the auditorium’s seating and flooring. But the results of phase one already paint the picture of “a more vibrant auditorium that can provide an amazing experience,” says Bricker — one already appealing to more concert and lecture promoters. The renovation was completed in time for kickoff of the Tate Lecture Series last month.

McFarlin Auditorium’s Storied Past & Present

When SMU’s McFarlin Memorial Auditorium opened in 1926, it was intended to serve as an elegant chapel and venue for the entire student body to “have our friends from the community and elsewhere gather together on great occasions,” said Charles Selecman, SMU’s president from 1930–38. The building was “built to defy time, scorn fire and withstand rain and wind,” Selecman said, adding, “What a lasting monument.”

McFarlin Auditorium in 1917
McFarlin Auditorium

The regal neoclassical building, the University’s third permanent structure, was funded by San Antonio businessman Robert M. McFarlin, who had a compelling reason for his devotion to the Methodist Church. His father, Benjamin Porter McFarlin, a farmer from Ovilla, Texas, had been a Presbyterian until banished from his congregation for working on a Sunday to help a neighbor save his crop from bad weather. That’s why McFarlin Auditorium’s original curtain, lowered on special occasions as a backdrop, features a pastoral scene with the word “Ovilla” painted across the bottom.

Over its near nine-decade existence, McFarlin Auditorium has hosted the likes of Will Rodgers, Sinclair Lewis, Orson Wells, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Margaret Thatcher, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, for whom a shower was installed at his request. (For more of McFarlin’s past guests and performers, click here.)

Legend has it that the auditorium also has a friendly ghost — the supposed spirit of Jack Black, a stagehand during the late 1950s, early ’60s. “When the elevator opens before I press the button, I say, ‘Thanks, Jack,’ and go about my business,” SMU’s Executive Director of Campus Services Alison Tweedy says with a smile.

McFarlin Auditorium, seating 2,386 on three levels, annually hosts hundreds of performances. For more details about the venue and its upcoming events, visit www.smu.edu/businessfinance/campusservices/mcfarlin or call (214) 768-3139.