The Long Center Story
Since its opening in 2008, the Long Center has become one of the nation’s premier cultural showplaces, a world-class facility that is nonetheless completely and uniquely Austin. A center-stage location on the southern shore of Lady Bird Lake and a unique design that combines history with innovation showcase Austin’s natural beauty and commitment to sustainability. And the story of how the Long Center came to be, featuring a literal cast of thousands, reflects Austin’s community-wide commitment to cultural excellence and quality of life.
The Long Center is the climax of a story that goes back nearly 20 years, when leaders of the arts community first coalesced around a vision, a world-class arts center that Austin could call its own and that was fitting to the quality of work being performed here, particularly by Long Center Founding Resident Companies Austin Lyric Opera, The Austin Symphony Orchestra and Ballet Austin. The need for suitable performance space had always been a challenge for Austin artists.
In November 1998, the citizens of Austin voted to approve the City’s plan to lease the Lester E. Palmer Auditorium, built in 1959, to the nonprofit group Arts Center Stage, who would renovate Palmer into a community performing arts venue. In April 1999, Arts Center Stage received its lead gift of $20 million from Joe and Teresa Long, and the Arts Center Stage project was renamed the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts.
Also in 1998, Austin voters approved a new rental car tax to fund construction of the Palmer Events Center and Town Lake Park. A new civic, cultural and recreation district emerged on the southern waterfront of what is now Lady Bird Lake. The Long Center was the crowning jewel and hub; the surrounding acreage (long dedicated as parkland, but underused and paved over for generations) made its debut as Town Lake Park, adding to the chain of treasured green space on the shores of Austin’s unique downtown lake; and the new Palmer Events Center was built to address the needs of community groups for meeting and events space.
All three of these projects were made possible by the citizens and voters of Austin; however, the Long Center itself did not receive any public funds. In fact, the $77 million Long Center project has been made possible by donations from more than 4,600 supporters of the arts in Austin, in amounts ranging from $1 to $22 million.
Converting the old Palmer Auditorium into a quality performing arts venue highlighted the ingenuity and dedication of a diverse design team featuring both top national talent and leading local architects. The old Palmer stagehouse, one of the largest in Texas, was preserved as the stage for the 2,400-seat Michael & Susan Dell Hall, the Long Center’s main venue. The innovative circular “ring beam” that anchored Palmer has been retained as the iconic design element of the Long Center. And the HEB Terrace following the ring’s outline is a public space offering sweeping award-winning vistas of the Austin skyline for guests to enjoy.
Within this frame, the Long Center’s primary venues — Michael & Susan Dell Hall and the Debra and Kevin Rollins Studio Theatre — are artfully enclosed. Both spaces were the product of extensive collaboration between design experts and the broad array of arts and community groups who make the center their home. These spaces combine sophisticated aesthetics, high tech acoustics and advanced technical capabilities. And, they do it with a welcoming style that invites the entire community to enjoy Austin’s artistic excellence in a relaxed atmosphere that is in harmony with the community’s character.
In 2012, the Long Center proudly took its role as Austin’s Creative Home to a new level by announcing its first class of local resident companies. Longtime collaborators Austin Shakespeare, Conspirare, Pollyanna Theatre Company and Tapestry Dance Company made the Long Center their official home.
A critical facet of the Long Center’s design reflects Austin’s commitment to sustainability, environmental responsibility and the region’s natural beauty. More than 95 percent of the material from the deconstructed Palmer Auditorium has been recycled, much of it in the finishes and fixtures of the Long Center. For example, the aluminum panels that formed the distinctive multicolored Palmer roof have found a new life as internal and external finishes of the Long Center. Glass panels that honor the Long Center’s major supporters in the Founders’ Society have been fabricated from the former exterior curtain wall of the auditorium.
The Long Center plays its part in the continued evolution of Austin’s exciting, diverse and ever-more-renowned performing arts scene — and of Austin’s own growth and maturity as one of the nation’s and world’s cultural capitals.
The Long Center is a fitting addition to one of a handful of metro areas in the country (and one of the smallest) to support a professional symphony, opera, and ballet, a fine-arts tradition that goes back nearly a century. The Austin theatre scene has earned a national and even global following, with Obies, Tonys, Pulitzers and other major awards to its credit. And community arts groups in Austin number in the hundreds, contributing energy, diversity and excellence to a performing arts scene that (according to a city-sponsored report by Texas Perspectives) generates more than $300 million a year for the local economy.
Austin’s cultural vitality and artistic accomplishments are among the community’s most treasured hallmarks. But outside of Austin, they had also been among the city’s best-kept secrets. With the opening of the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts, Austin now has a fitting stage for its presence as an American cultural capital.