Reinventing Vaudeville: Plano-Coudon builds high-tech work space in former McHenry Theater

Beneath a dome of ornate plasterwork that once dazzled vaudeville audiences, Plano-Coudon Construction recently created an 8,000 square foot expansion of a contemporary work space to meet the needs of technology innovators.

Key Tech – a Baltimore company that transforms complex technical requirements into sophisticated electromechanical products for medical, industrial and consumer markets – had established offices in 2002 in the west half of the former McHenry Theater (1917 Vaudeville Theater) on Cross Street. As the company grew, however, Key Tech executives decided it was time to occupy the entire theater.

“The east half of the theater had been built out previously for purposes that weren’t conducive to the way we operate,” said Keith Lipford, vice president of operations.

Consequently, Key Tech decided to gut the eastern half of the building and blend it with Key Tech’s existing work space in a manner that met the company’s desire for modern, collaborative work space and its commitment to architectural aesthetics.

“We wanted people to come into this space and be in awe,” Lipford said. “So we worked hard to find the right team with the right experience and resources to achieve our lofty goals. Thanks in large part to Plano Coudon, all our goals were either met or exceeded. The reaction our clients have when they view contemporary floating mezzanines inside this beautifully ornate Vaudeville Theater, let’s just say there is a significant awe factor!”

Chris Pfaeflle who had served as architect for the initial 2001-02 theater renovation, returned to design the recent 8,000-square-foot expansion of Key Tech’s work space. He suggested company leaders contract Plano-Coudon for the project. Plano-Coudon, he said, is known for its ability to collaborate effectively with architects, develop simplified ways to execute even challenging designs, apply sophisticated cost estimating to complex jobs, and complete projects in tight urban spaces.

“Plano-Coudon gave us a really seasoned, serious, onsite supervisor and a really smart project manager,” Pfaeflle said. “They went into the job knowing they would have to be hands-on in areas that involved atypical construction types. They paid close attention to detail and they developed a great relationship with the client.”

The scope of the renovation included creating new work spaces, project rooms, an all-hands meeting space beneath the theater’s great dome, and a restaurant-style kitchen and event space. Crews would have to connect all levels of both halves of the theater, repair plasterwork and other damaged features of the nearly century old building, and complete all interior finishes. They would also have to remove a 40-foot, load-bearing, demising wall, which separated the two halves of the building. Furthermore, all work had to be completed in a building occupied by a high-tech firm, working with highly sensitive equipment.

“We took extreme precautions to make sure their space wasn’t compromised during the demolition of the demising wall,” said Jared Geary.

Crews ran negative air machines, covered everything in plastic, scheduled work for overnight and weekend hours, and carefully removed the wall in six-foot sections in order to minimize construction dust.

“It was almost a surgical procedure,” Pfaeflle said. “The structural engineer even designed the fixes so that we could do 80 percent of the work on one side of the wall and leave the sheetrock in place on the other side [facing Key Tech’s existing space] throughout a lot of the renovation.”

However, the biggest challenge that confronted crews was the need to install new structural steel to compensate for the removal of sections of the load-bearing wall.

“Getting lift space wasn’t easy because we were working in an existing office building,” Geary said. “We had a 26-foot I-beam that had to be installed. We had to put it on rollers, push it across the space and then hoist it almost by hand.”

“With our renovation, a lot of things had to come together in a short period of time and the folks at Plano-Coudon did a really great job at making that happen,” Lipford said. “They were very professional, efficient and effective from day one. They were paying attention to detail, so they foresaw issues and mitigated them before they turned into problems. That may seem like an obvious task but it takes conscientious, focused staff and lots of experience to foresee and mitigate construction related problems before they happen!”