Kalispell’s Wachholz College Center: A State-of-the-Art Concert Venue

Kalispell's Wachholz College Center

By Craig Thomas Naylor

A town becomes a destination when it builds a performing arts center and Kalispell now has a magnificent one. The Wachholz College Center and its showpiece McClaren Hall are the culmination of three dreams. Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC) has wanted an athletic center for years. The college’s growing music department needed a home. The Glacier Symphony and Chorale has yearned for a quality concert venue for decades. Combine these three, add an art gallery, and you have the new Wachholz College Center.

I have a doctoral degree in music composition (from a little school in Los Angeles called USC). I have been in some of the finest concert halls in the country and I can assure you, the McClaren Hall is equal to any of them. The local newspapers (Flathead Beacon and Daily Interlake) have covered many of the gracious benefactors that made this primarily donor-funded facility possible, but I was curious how such a building came to be; from a shovel in the dirt breaking ground to doors opening to the public.

Architecture firm Cushing Terrell has a long relationship with FVCC and was asked to design the building. My visit with Shawn Pauly, one of the lead designers, was like talking to a kid in a candy store. “I love this building,” he told me. “My team and I worked on it for five years, during which I bought a house, had two kids, and lived through a pandemic. My heart is in this Center.” He walked me through the process.

First came some general sketches. A venue like this is quite expensive so they advised FVCC to have a 1000-seat hall (instead of 750) so they could bring in headlining Rock and Roll and Country groups (like the Marshall Tucker concert I saw last winter). They brought in Threshold Acoustics (based in Chicago) and Schuler Shook Theater Planners (based in Minneapolis), and went to work. One challenge was acoustically separating McClaren Hall from the adjoining Stinson Family Event Center and gymnasium so an audience wouldn’t hear a basketball dribbling bass drum during a string quartet concert. This interface is quieted by resting the gym structure on thick neoprene pads.

McClaren Hall is a pristine concert venue and I was particularly interested in visiting with Threshold Acoustic’s Rob Miller. “We visited Kalispell before the project went into design mode. We spoke with the local and college performing organizations, listened to what they wanted, then went to work.” Threshold has a long track record designing concert venues around the country so they implemented a tried-and-true design of a stage with reflecting panels, walls radiating from the stage, then a hall that gradually opens toward the back row of seats. The stage ceiling panels were fine-tuned, and the angles adjusted to project the right amount of sound in the right frequency distribution. Sound-absorbing curtains in the upper back can be in place (for Rock and Roll) or retracted (for Classical music). Convex reflecting panels on the sides add additional dispersion. They ran all these design aspects through computer modeling to make sure they were on the right track. “We needed to make sure the audience hears clearly,” Rob added, “but, at the same time, make sure the musicians on stage also hear the full ensemble. Our company aims for acoustic jewels, and I think we did that.”

Schuler Shook’s Jody Kovalick worked on the theater planning and system design from the get-go. “We needed enough light on stage so the symphony musicians could see their music. When the sound-reflecting roof is retracted for Rock and Roll and other such concerts, we added more spotlights above the stage. Banks of lights are on a catwalk in front of the stage and there are more in the back of the hall. Every lighting fixture impacts acoustic shaping so we go back and forth with the architect and acoustics engineers until we have it right. Add in ambient lighting to make the hall look beautiful, all computer-controlled, and exterior lighting in a rainbow of colors to accent the aluminum exterior, and we’ve enhanced the magnificent aesthetic design.”

Civil engineering firm RPA handled site design, utilities, stormwater runoff, parking, roads, and pedestrian paths. Alpine Geotechnical oversaw geotechnical aspects such as soil testing, below-grade design, and structural capacities. Both firms are based in Kalispell.

The project then went back to Cushing Terrell for the final design. Architect Shawn Pauly shared some of the challenges. “We had to use precast concrete for the walls. This accomplishes two things: structural integrity and a concert venue with reverberant acoustics. Fourteen-inch-thick panels were built by Missoula Concrete, each with a sandwich construction: seven inches of reinforced-steel concrete, four inches of insulating foam, and another three inches of concrete. Some of these panels were 57 feet long!” he exclaimed. “Each had to be only eight feet wide to be trucked on the highway. They couldn’t lie flat when poured, otherwise, they’d warp like those wonky 2x4s we see at our local big box lumber yard, so we designed a rack in which they could sit vertically, like dishes in a drying rack. They cured for a minimum of 28 days. Also, since these panels are structurally integrated, all openings for conduit, plumbing, and other building necessities had to be pre-designed and implemented at the pour stage. Everything had to be precise down to the millimeter.”

Now it was time to build. Swank Enterprises received the contract. “I’d never built a concert hall,” Swank’s Project Supervisor Duke Goss told me. “I was thrilled. One exciting aspect is I can’t remember ever learning as much on a project. We’re specialists at giving our customers great value for their dollar and I’d suggest a change here and there, but the design team uplifted my knowledge about acoustics and made me see that everything they wanted was essential.”

I asked him, Is it a challenge to lift a 57-foot-long chunk of concrete? “A challenge, yes, but it’s pretty common in buildings these days. We had Precision Precast Erectors from Spokane come over. They brought their crane and operator and the panels went up smoothly. We had the trucks lined up, took a panel off one, and they’d drive away. The next rig would pull up, we’d hoist their panel, and keep the line moving until all were in place.”

I asked about the roof. “Bottom to top: steel trusses, composite decking, six inches of poured concrete (“For great acoustics,” says Shawn Pauly), foam insulation, a waterproof membrane, then roofing with rock.”

One joy of my interviews was the excitement each designer and builder shared about the project. Mr. Goss spoke with great affection about the beauty of the interior of McClaren Hall, such as the convex wood panels that function as acoustic reflectors but also add aesthetic splendor to the venue. “I love being in the hall,” he says. “It’s not only beautiful, but I can sit in any seat and hear someone on stage speaking in a normal tone of voice.”

The last piece to such a venue is to bring in a visionary program director. Billings-born Matt Laughlin is delighted to be back in Montana. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Montana and then spent two decades as Director of Venue Administration for Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony. He is booking a wide variety of events from Rock, Pop, Jazz, and Country to Classical Music to guest speakers from comedy to natural world scientists and artists. He’s beginning to feature some local bands, too. “I like variety,” he says. “I try to program something for everyone.”

So, next time you’re in Kalispell, check out the Wachholz College Center events at Come early to have a beverage and check out the rotating art offerings in the Wanda Hollensteiner Art Gallery. Seniors receive a discount if they call the box office or buy tickets in person at the Center located at 795 Grandview Drive.

But, while there, take a moment to bathe yourself in the beauty, both visual and acoustic, of this marvelous McClaren Hall, a great gift to the people of the Flathead and Montana. MSN

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