JFK Center for the Performing Arts

What does Severud Associates have in common with Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, Agnes de Mille, and Aaron Copland? All have a place in the history of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower championed the idea of a prominent venue for the arts and in 1958 he signed legislation creating a National Cultural Center. President John F. Kennedy continued to promote the project and led efforts to fund it. In March 1963, Severud Associates was retained to work with renowned architect Edward Durell Stone to design the Center. Congress designated it a “living memorial” to President Kennedy soon after he was assassinated.


Located on the banks of the Potomac River not far from the National Mall, the Kennedy Center sits on concrete caissons, up to 12 feet in diameter, which extend to bedrock. Inside the massive building, each of the three main auditoriums—the Concert Hall, Opera House, and Eisenhower Theater—is acoustically isolated from the structural system that surrounds it. Structural steel columns within the auditorium areas rest on one-inch thick isolation pads, which dampen vibrations from adjoining structural elements, the parking garage below, and the parkway that runs beneath the cantilevered terrace on the Center’s west side.


The upper level Terrace Theater provided a notable engineering challenge. Its stage and half of its seating rest on a 56-foot diameter turntable, which enables the venue to be transformed from a traditional proscenium theater into a more intimate theater-in-the-round. Electric motors rotate the turntable 180 degrees while eight jackscrews raise or lower it by up to ten feet to keep the audience at the proper level with respect to the stage. The jackscrews are supported by a two-way suspension system whose shallow twelve-inch construction depth squeezes between the turntable and the ceiling of the Eisenhower Theater below, despite spans of up to 60 feet.


In the forty years since finishing the Kennedy Center, Severud Associates has designed a vast array of cultural venues including, much more recently, the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center, the Mattin Center at Johns Hopkins University, and the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago.