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UVM Repurposes Former Taft School as Arts Center

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Michele and Martin Cohen Hall for the Integrative Creative Arts
  • Michele and Martin Cohen Hall for the Integrative Creative Arts

Lots of elementary school kids eventually go to college. But it's not every day that an elementary school itself does. In a manner of speaking, that's what happened to the Elihu B. Taft School at the corner of Williams and Pearl streets in Burlington. It is now part of the University of Vermont.

Early in October, UVM officially recognized the 1939 building's new incarnation as a multidisciplinary arts facility, catering to both visual and performing arts. Formally it's been christened the Michele and Martin Cohen Hall for the Integrative Creative Arts — in honor of the donors who made it possible — but it's easier just to call it "Cohen Hall." Students have been utilizing the revamped school since classes began in September.

"By the skin of our teeth, it was ready this semester," said Kelley Di Dio, associate College of Arts and Sciences dean, a professor in the art and art history department, and a key figure in the Taft transformation. "I oversaw implementation of the plan for Arts and Sciences, in consultation with Paul [Besaw, chair of the music and dance department], who I knew needed a dance floor, and other faculty."

Di Dio, who liaised with architects and contractors, said she was involved with everything from doorknobs to paint colors. "But more than anything," she said, "I saw the possibilities of bringing all these disciplines together."

She's referring to the fact that some programs, particularly film and TV and dance, were sorely in need of more space. The film students didn't have a designated production facility, for example; the 10-year-old dance program didn't have a room with a sprung floor.

"There are ways in which this building is an important provider of things we're already teaching," said Di Dio, "and then [there are] new things."

Architecturally, Cohen Hall mixes old and new, too. The stately two-story brick building with the tall white columns — a product of the 1930s Works Progress Administration — hasn't changed much on the outside. Only a sign in the yard and lettering above the front door signal a shift from its former purpose. During a tour last week with Besaw and academic communications professional Kevin Coburn, the interior also revealed only subtle additions.

The marble entry remained intact, but visitors found themselves facing the first of a number of video kiosks featuring student works on a loop. A glance left or right down the hall revealed original dark-wood doors and tile-framed drinking fountains, but the bathroom was 21st century: unisex and handicap-accessible.

Student drawings were pinned to a makeshift gallery wall outside a classroom. Old chalkboards were still in evidence, but one room, Besaw pointed out, will soon have a green screen, a boon for film students. A future sound studio will accommodate audio production.

Most of the classrooms were nondescript — the kind of chair-filled spaces found on college campuses everywhere. But the school's former gymnasium arguably holds the most promise. Currently, the hardwood is covered with a temporary marley floor, a rubberized surface suitable for performance. A sprung floor will soon be installed, Besaw noted, along with a control room, lighting and sound.

"We're still [involved in] design considerations," Besaw said. "Dance, theater, maybe some [UVM] Lane Series shows. This will be a black box ... We're dreaming of having a multimedia performance space."

Cohen Hall is still a work in progress.

Paul Besaw in Cohen Hall - PAMELA POLSTON
  • Pamela Polston
  • Paul Besaw in Cohen Hall

Besaw remarked on the interdisciplinary nature of the building, where students of different concentrations, once isolated, can now connect. "I'd say film and dance were the programs with the most space needs," he said. "Williams Hall is great, but it shares [space] with other programs." Dance performances, Besaw said, have taken place in the gym at Mann Hall on the former Trinity College campus. "Having dance over here has really integrated the faculty," he said.

UVM did not purchase the former Taft School; it has a very long-term lease from the city — 80 years, according to Di Dio. Over that time, anything could happen. For now, the facility has a new lease on life.

The Cohens — Michele is an alum (1972) — have made clear their dedication to the arts with $7 million in donations to UVM to date. "The initial $2 million was eaten up in considerable physical improvements" in the building, said Di Dio, including asbestos abatement and accessibility mandates. "After that, we started thinking about what programming in the building could be."

Di Dio said UVM hired a consulting firm three years ago to assess its needs. "They interviewed all the faculty and went to all the arts buildings, and then helped us with planning," she said. Michele Cohen and UVM president Tom Sullivan initially had envisioned the Taft building as a visual arts facility, but, "after discussions, the Cohens were on board with an interdisciplinary approach," Di Dio said. "That became the motivation for the project — how to bring everybody together."

Accomplishing that was "incredibly rewarding, one of the best experiences of my professional career," she said. "It's very tangible — you can see the results." 

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Former Taft Elementary School Gets a UVM Do-Over"

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