Take a closer look at Eisenhower Auditorium’s design

A 3-D architectural model depicts the original plans for University Auditorium, now Eisenhower Auditorium.

Based on a plan by architectural consultants Sanders & Bicksler and Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc., Eisenhower Auditorium (then University Auditorium) was built with acoustics in mind.

Credit: Penn State University Libraries

By Heather Longley

The Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State has its roots in the Artists Series, but its programs are linked to Eisenhower Auditorium.

From the outside, the midcentury-era University Park landmark might look like 532,485 towering bricks, among other theories. But inside, the Brutalist-inspired structure was built with the goal of creating a space that could rise to the presentation of world’s top artists and minds to the Penn State campus and community.

An archival newspaper clipping shows a bird's-eye view of a large brick building.
Credit: Penn State University Libraries

Built for need

The Artists Series was created in 1957 under the leadership of Albert Christ-Janer, first director of Penn State’s School of the Arts, and directed and expanded by Director Nina Brown.

In the beginning, most presentations were in Schwab Auditorium, but events that required more space were held in Recreation Building (Rec Hall). Conditions at neither venue were ideal.

“Schwab Auditorium had a shallow stage and no real backstage to present theatre,” Brown said. “We often presented multiple performances to accommodate the demand for tickets. Rec Hall had uncomfortable seating — folding chairs on the floor with bleacher seating on the sides. … The stage was very noisy for ballet and any kind of dance.”

An article in The Daily Collegian in February 1959 foretold of the traits desired in a performing-arts space of the future. Visiting Professor of Architecture Walter G. Reis tasked his Architecture 105 students with creating a pitch model for the University’s arts venue that exemplified “a social focus for the entire Centre County area.”

“Reis said the major problem to be solved in designing an auditorium is acoustics,” wrote Daily Collegian reporter Cathy Fleck. “The new auditorium should have a good acoustical system and the best visual acuity.”

Based on a plan by architectural consultants Sanders & Bicksler and Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc., Eisenhower Auditorium was built with acoustics in mind. While conceptualized as an optimal space for symphonies, ensembles, choral groups, dramatic productions, motion pictures and lectures, the building over the years came to host a variety of student, community and arts-adjacent programs.

William Crocken and his colleagues mastered the auditorium’s settings and equipment positions to ensure all kinds of performances were heard equally.

“This type of hall produces the preferred climate for ballet, opera, theatre, symphonic music — the entire gamut of the performing arts,” said the Penn State professor and Eisenhower Auditorium collaborator in a 1981 Daily Collegian interview.

Crocken added that rapid-installation changes to the “guts” of the auditorium could be made to enhance another style of performance, such as the dropping a velour curtain for jazz music or the use of a portable bandshell to create an orchestral music “booth.”

An archival, bird'eye-view photo shows an orchestra audience watching musicians perform on the stage.

Built-in reverberation chambers, behind the metal mesh walls on each side of the then-University Auditorium (now Eisenhower Auditorium), were touted by theater systems engineer George Boyer, who said the chambers could be modified for each event for the best sound quality.

Credit: Penn State University Libraries


In their exhaustive 1994 thesis, “The Milton S. Eisenhower Auditorium and Lecture Hall,” Penn State architectural engineering student authors Mark Borowski and Nick Marchitto described Eisenhower Auditorium as a towering, stable and sturdy structure, impervious to the forces of nature and well aware of its biggest stylistic challenge—gravity.

“In the auditorium’s rigid frame structure, the exterior walls are composed of poured concrete and steel girders spanning the width of the building,” they wrote.

“The balconies are a critical aspect of the auditorium,” they wrote. The overhangs served as a way to avoid using columns within the house itself, giving it the openness without an architecturally obstructed view.

“In place of these columns, reinforcing rods within the concrete help spread the loads of the balconies to the bearing walls within the structure.”

The built-in reverberation chambers, behind the metal mesh walls on each side of the auditorium, were touted by theater systems engineer George Boyer, who said the chambers could be modified for each event for the best sound quality.

A short story in the March 21, 1974, edition of the Behrend Collegian teased the new state-of-the-art facility, including “a system of motor-driven shutters (electronic curtains) and manually operated portals” and “complex sound and lighting controls and a large hydraulically driven platform (the stage lift) which can move an entire orchestra from stage to basement level.”

Borowski and Marchitto also were eager to point out the big three of the auditorium’s architectural features—the acoustical design, the stage’s hydraulic elevator and, in a twist of irony, the now-infamous continental seating arrangement.

Numerous choruses and classical musicians stand in rows on a stage.

The University Auditorium patrons held multiple standings ovation for the May 8, 1974, opening-night performance.

Credit: Penn State University Libraries

A modern way of seating

Approximately 2,600 seats are housed on the Orchestra level and Grand Tier and Balcony levels. Ground-level seating is arranged in rows of 35 to 60 seats in a continental manner, which resulted in a seating situation that leaves something to be desired by today’s patrons.

“This style was used to achieve maximum seating capacity, and resulted in a lack of center aisles,” Borowski and Marchitto wrote.

However, the authors continued, “This design accommodates the auditorium’s many purposes. For example, there are 3-foot-4-inch spaces between rows to allow for kneeling during religious services. The back row of seats are removable [to accommodate wheelchairs]. … The first few rows can also be removed to lower the stage 8 feet; once the floor is lowered, access is available to the [orchestra] pit.”

Lea Asbell-Swanger, Center for the Performing Arts Assistant Director since 2002, said the space between rows was not for religious reasons.

“The distance between rows had nothing to do with kneeling, but with fire code. At least that’s what I was always told,” she said.

After the audience held multiple standings ovation for the May 8, 1974, opening-night performance, a Daily Collegian staff writer was swayed by her introduction to the new auditorium.

“The aisles between the red plush seats afford more than ample space for walking, and the acoustics are excellent," reporter Sheila McCauley wrote.

Eisenhower Auditorium’s audiences of today may be interested in this arrangement. The most common feedback received in post-events customer surveys is the lack of a center aisle and the inconvenience caused by the long row.

Consider this: In 1988, William Allison, associate director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, told the Daily Collegian that because the auditorium was going also to be used for religious services, kneelers for patrons were considered, then dropped.

An undated and tattered archival newspaper clipping nicknames University Auditorium as "Superbowl."

An undated and tattered archival newspaper clipping nicknamed the new University Auditorium as “Superbowl.”

Credit: Penn State University Libraries

A design to remember

“That story goes that an early design proposal in plain view showed the main auditorium as a large oval with a rectangular box at the back, which some thought resembled a toilet,” Swanger said.

An undated press clipping of an unknown source, titled “Superbowl,” indeed offered its suggestions to improve the design: replacing the red brick with pink ceramic tile and installing a chrome handle. The writers of that opinion forgot that inside those sturdy walls were the final element to acoustic mastery: reverberation chambers large enough for choristers to stand inside and sing unseen.

A bird’s-eye view of the building gives the impression of a celebratory wreath — a symbol of renewal and regenerization, and a fitting sign for Eisenhower Auditorium’s 50th year.

2024—25 season teaser

The Center will announce its 2024—25 event season on Tuesday, July 30, with events that will especially appeal to fans of touring Broadway, modern and cultural dance, cirque arts, classical and vocal repertoire, and country and jazz music.

Tickets for season events go on sale at 10 a.m. Tuesday, August 7, to members and at 10 a.m. Thursday, August 8, to the public, and will be available to order online, by phone at 814-863-0255, or in person (10 a.m.–4 p.m. weekdays) at the Arts Ticket Center in Eisenhower Auditorium.

Heather Longley is a marketing communications associate at the Center for the Performing Arts.

Unit Outreach: Center for the Performing Arts
Offices: Office of Access and Equity