NEW CANAAN — Superintendent Bryan Luizzi kicked off the grand celebration of the Saxe Middle School building project by asking the visitors sitting in the newly-renovated auditorium to take a deep breath.
“That’s new auditorium smell,” he said in front of dozens of parents, students, faculty and officials who came to see the changes to the school. “This is a place that is going to be very well used in the years ahead. That smell will dissipate quickly.”
It was the first time in years the auditorium boasted that new-smell scent, having not been renovated since it was built in 1957. Luizzi said the smell would be replaced by memories and laughter from the performances to come. The renovated space opened in mid-October and already seated around 1,800 people for the middle school’s three performances of “Aladdin Jr.”
The revamped auditorium, with new acoustics, new lighting and refurbished seats, is one of several recent changes to the middle school that visitors got to see during the Dec. 5 tour. Also open to the public was the new two-story wing of the school, now home to STEM, art and science classrooms. The space where those classrooms used to be was also reconfigured, allowing for expanded music rooms.
The addition and renovations are the first major changes to the school since 1999 and will allow the school to accommodate its student body, one of the largest of any middle school in the state. The current school population is around 1,350 students, and has hovered between 1,200 and 1,400 students since 2000, according to Saxe Middle School Principal Greg Macedo.
Steve Burgess, one of the architects on the project and a project manager for it, said his firm, JCJ Architecture, oversaw the school’s last addition in 1999 and has enjoyed seeing the school evolve. He said the firm used a theater consultant from New York City, where JCJ is based, to help install top-of-the-line lighting and acoustics.
“This is a grade-A auditorium,” Burgess said. “We were here in 1999 and did that renovation and addition. This completed the whole thing. We’re lucky to have been chosen.”
Student musicians showed off the fine acoustics in the auditorium by playing a selection of numbers. An eighth-grade saxophone ensemble did some seasonal selections, including “Frosty the Snowman” and “Jingle Bell Rock” while a clarinet ensemble played the “Clarinet Cha-Cha.” A group of eighth-grade choral singers also performed a holiday number while clad in Santa hats.
Chris Culter, a band director who led the saxophone ensemble, said there’s already a noticeable difference in the sound in the redesigned auditorium and band rooms.
“It’s a beautiful, live, clear sound,” he said. “It was excellent for us to play.”
Macedo said expanding the art and music rooms was a crucial part of the project since every student in the school is required to take art and music.
The improved music rooms, which opened to students the week before Thanksgiving, are where the art rooms now in the new wing of Saxe were once located. The creation of the wing allowed the music classrooms to expand to fit the growing number of students, each of whom is required to take band, chorus or orchestra. The old music classrooms are now practice and music technology rooms, while many of the former art classrooms have been enlarged. The band room, the largest of them all, went from 1,200- to 2,000-square-feet of space. It can now accommodate 150 students.
While improvements were ongoing, students shuffled back and forth between the spaces — using the old music rooms while the auditorium was renovated and then practicing in the auditorium during the expansion of the music rooms.
According to Saxe Building Committee Chair Penny Rashin, the project, which was three years in the making, was completed both on time and on budget. The final cost of the project was about $18.6 million.
“It’s been a tremendous project,” Rashin said. “It’s a great thing watching students and teachers use the new space.”