How Marble Added Dignity and Honored Philanthropy at Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Photos courtesy of Gabriela Ginsburg, Rugo Stone. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Fall 2021 edition of Building Stone Magazine.
2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the renowned John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, located in the heart of Washington, D.C. aside the Potomac River. In its first 50 years, the Center has carried President Kennedy’s call to action forward as the United States National Cultural Center. Its objective is to invite art into the lives of all Americans and ensure it represents the cultural diversity of the nation. Presenting over 2,200 performing arts shows and events each year, the Kennedy Center is one of the most-visited presidential monuments in the United States.
In 2013, a 60,000-square-foot expansion project on four acres of the Center’s South Plaza commenced, led by architect Steven Holl of Steven Holl Architects in New York City. The expansion, entitled “The REACH,” added three pavilions— connected underground to form an expansive facility that provides additional classrooms, rehearsal, and performance spaces—as well as extensive landscaping, with a reflecting pool, tree grove, sloping lawn for outdoor performances, and a pedestrian bridge over Rock Creek Parkway. It was completed in 2019.
According to the Kennedy Center’s website, “The REACH is a place where visitors, audiences, and artists can come together for collaboration, experimentation, and exploration in the spirit of President Kennedy’s vision for a new frontier for the arts. Many of the spaces were named after historical and personal moments in his life as an expression of our role as his living memorial.”
The design for The REACH “merges architecture with landscape to expand the dimensions of a living memorial,” according to Steven Holl Architects.
To recognize all who helped make the expansion possible, a 1,200-square-foot wall of Bianco Carrara marble was created in the lobby of the new Welcome Pavilion, the main entry to all other spaces at The REACH. Known as the “Gratitude Wall,” it was engraved with names of each donor.
“We selected this specific location because of its prominence and because it offered a large canvas for us to create something interesting and elegant,” said Raymundo Pavan Gutierrez, senior spatial designer at Bruce Mau Design in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, who spearheaded the design of the wall. “The geometry of the piece is inspired by the shape of the pavilions, and it’s defined by the marble finish. While the original concept was not specifically about the marble, it quickly became obvious that the selected stone was the right material to use. It provided us a visual connection with the existing donor recognition system at the original Kennedy Center Edward Durell Stone Building and allowed us to freely work on a beautiful layout for all the donor names.”
Bruce Mau Design worked in collaboration with the project manager, Paratus Group in Washington, D.C., who oversaw the construction. “The donor wall was a late introduction into the design,” said Andrew Klemmer, founder of Paratus Group. “Rugo Stone was the contractor to pull off this difficult inclusion of a really beautiful stone wall in a building that is all concrete. The client wanted something that was special, and Rugo came in and helped us create that.”
Rugo Stone in Lorton, VA specializes in stone fabrication and engraving and helped bring the ambitious design to life using sleek and subtle Bianco Carrara C white marble. “The REACH is primarily architectural concrete or plaster for all the exterior and interior wall finishes, although the plaster is expertly done, and the use of marble was considered a more noble surface for the donor recognition,” said Brett Rugo, owner of Rugo Stone. “The original John F. Kennedy Center is clad in Bianco Carrara, both on the exterior and interior, and the design team desired to use the same material produced in the late 1960s to bridge the two buildings designs.”
The marble used for the Gratitude Wall was supplied by Euromarble in Carrara, Italy. “The block we selected was produced from the same quarry that supplied the blocks for the project originally,” said Roberto Canali, owner of Euromarble. “We placed special attention on this job because my father was the general manager of Alberto Bufalini, the company that originally supplied all of the marble for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1968, 1969, and 1970.
“I’ve heard many stories about the project since I was a kid,” he continued. “Edward Durell Stone selected Carrara White marble for this enormous project— 3,700 tons—and considering the time, this was one of the jobs that started the marble industry. The marble was a donation to the U.S. from the Italian government.”
Euromarble supplied around 1,250 square feet of 1 3/16-inch-thick Bianco Carrara C marble in a honed finish for the Gratitude Wall. About two dozen large-format panels, each measuring 8 feet, 9 inches long x 4 feet, 6 inches tall, were used to construct the wall.
“We traveled to Italy to source the most uniform block for the large panels,” Rugo explained. “The block selected was very uniform in background color and vein direction. This was critical, as our carvers would later have to engrave all the donors’ names on these large panels, and we didn’t want the stone veining to interrupt the visibility of the lettering.”
Multiple mock-ups were created during the design process for the lettering to develop the best solution to create a sharp font and contrast, according to Rugo. “A whole 1:1 wall was installed using vinyl to test the layout and legibility,” Pavan Gutierrez said. “We also had smaller samples where we could assess the depth for the etching and the color for the filling.
“We had to make sure that the final layout would work with the seams between the slabs, and we had to make sure we achieved optimum legibility by providing enough contrast between text and marble,” Pavan Gutierrez added. “We did this by mapping photos of every marble slab we had and creating an elevation where we designed a final layout.”
Euromarble’s virtual dry-laid system was utilized, which mapped out where each piece would go, labeling them accordingly for easy unpacking and installation. To ensure color and veining consistency, the marble panels were fully dry-set and inspected in Italy prior to being shipped to the United States.
Rugo Stone created a steel support system for the wall, which was installed prior to the grand opening on September 7, 2019. The installation of the wall only took about six weeks, while the engraving took an additional month after the official opening.
“Rugo helped us execute this in a finished lobby because of timing,” Klemmer explained. “Since the donor wall was still active and growing by the time of the grand opening, they gave us a way to open the building while we were still working out all of the names and all of the final details of how it would be accomplished. We did temporary lettering for the initial names on the wall and then came back after the opening to do the actual engraving. There were many changes, so it worked out well.”
Rugo’s engraving artisans returned to the open-to-the-public building to perform the engraving during the winter of 2020. “The owner was very much concerned about the dust that would accompany the engraving process,” Rugo said. “Understanding the owner’s concerns, as well as the hazards that sandblasting creates, our team created a dustproof scaffold system complete with a dust containment system designed to trap all the abrasive stone dust.”
The emergence of COVID-19 also inadvertently helped the team complete the engraving with as little disruption as possible. “Logistically, it was going to be hard to work with people in the building,” Klemmer said. “It was easier to engrave while the building was empty.”
Rugo’s engraving designer worked carefully with the owner’s graphic designer to prepare the computerized razor-cut lettering templates. “Our master carvers then mounted the templates with a very precise layout and set out to delicately sandblast the letters,” Rugo said. “The engraving was performed with the use of an inventive portable sandblasting booth system, designed particularly for owner-occupied projects, that allows for easy blasting and containing the medium and dust.”
With about 15 months to complete the entire project, the owner couldn’t be happier with the uniquely crafted focal point at the entry of The REACH. “The Gratitude Wall is truly a statement piece that gives a proper recognition for those individuals who helped fund the project,” Rugo said. “It was a true pleasure working on the addition to the Kennedy Center; the client and the architects were true professionals.”