Community Prepares to Raise the Curtain on Hylton Performing Arts Center

Posted: May 10, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: May 7, 2010 at 12:28 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

Approaching Mason’s Prince William Campus, one may be startled by the sunlight glinting off the campus’ newest landmark, which soars nearly nine stories. Through the shining rays emerges a building that boasts a stunning mix of copper, glass and masonry.

The Hylton Performing Arts Center makes a grand entrance and proves that art and culture are alive and thriving in Prince William County. As the first building of its kind in the region, Mason administrators and local leaders believe that the new facility will serve as the cultural hub for the area and help support the regional arts scene.

“The Hylton Performing Arts Center is a great example of college, community and government pulling together to create something truly special,” says Harry Parrish II, mayor of the City of Manassas.

“I am very honored to be a part of this unique partnership that will enhance the quality of life for all residents of Manassas, Prince William and the greater region.”

When the center officially opens its doors with a grand opening weekend from May 21 to 23, local arts groups and performers from around the world will be welcomed to its stage — the culmination of a 10-year effort to make this much-anticipated performing arts venue a reality.

Uniting to Achieve a Common Goal

The Didlake Grand Foyer, upper level

As the Northern Virginia region continues to develop at a rapid pace, demands are increasing for more educational and cultural services, activities and facilities. Responding to these needs, a unique partnership emerged among Prince William County, Mason, the City of Manassas, the Commonwealth of Virginia and individuals and businesses in the private sector.

By joining forces, these entities were able to create the area’s first dedicated performing arts center. Set in motion more than a decade ago, this novel partnership of college, community and government was modeled after the Prince William Campus’ Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center, which was successfully opened to the community in 1999.

The result of this joint venture is a $46 million, 85,000-square-foot facility. The building was designed by Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture in New York and Hughes Group Architects in Sterling, Va. The center provides two unparalleled venues for a growing list of local arts groups and international touring artists, as well as university-related activities.

“I truly believe this will be the decade when Prince William County shines its brightest, and the Hylton Performing Arts Center is a majestic symbol of the future of the region,” says Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

“The center will serve the entire community and be an important resource for our schoolchildren, who will have numerous opportunities to perform at the Hylton Center.”

A 19th-Century Opera House Comes to Life

Merchant Hall

The center is named for the Cecil D. and Irene V. Hylton Foundation of Dale City, Va., which made a $5 million gift to the project. The Hyltons are best known for developing much of Dale City and giving back to the communities where they did business.

The center’s largest performance venue, Merchant Hall, honors Caton and Mae Merchant, parents of Carol Merchant Kirby, a Manassas native. She and her husband, Peter Kirby, contributed $1 million to the center. Carol Kirby is a member of Mason’s Prince William Campus Advisory Board, as well as the university’s Board of Visitors, and is a longtime patron of the arts.

Modeled after the intimate European opera houses of the 19th century, Merchant Hall is a 1,121-seat proscenium theater that has exposed concrete structure, copper detailing on the ceiling and natural wood throughout.

The orchestra section of the theater is encircled by 27 boxes that are divided among three levels. A diverse selection of artists — presenting ballet to bluegrass to Broadway — will perform on a stage that measures 100 feet by 45 feet and has adjustable acoustics that rival the best performance spaces in the country.

John O. Gregory, chairman of Gregory Construction Inc., a company that has played an important role in shaping the landscape of Manassas and Prince William County, gave a $750,000 gift for the second venue in the center in memory of his wife, Angela, and son, Scott. The 4,400-square-foot, 270-seat Gregory Family Theater can be configured for many different types of performances and events.

The center will also partner with the Didlake Foundation, which creates opportunities for people with disabilities through services that connect them to employment, education and the community. As part of this partnership, which was made possible through the estates of Mr. and Mrs. Roger J. Costello, the center’s 7,300-square-foot foyer is named the Didlake Grand Foyer. The space, with its sweeping staircase and 67-foot tall copper leaf mural, provides an ideal setting for community, corporate and social events.

Upstairs, the Buchanan Partners Gallery displays artwork from local and regional artists. Other spaces include a patrons’ lounge; scene, paint and costume shops; dressing rooms; catering kitchen; administrative offices; and rehearsal space.

Other lead gifts came from organizations such as Lockheed Martin Corporation, American Type Culture Collection, Dominion, Temporary Solutions Inc., Micron, ASSETT Inc. and Vulcan Materials.

“The community support for the Hylton Center has been overwhelming and illustrates how Mason can successfully partner with surrounding communities to plan and implement a project that benefits everyone,” says Mason President Alan Merten.

“The center will place emphasis on the importance of arts in the community and expand the programs of the university.”

Continued Support for the Arts

The Didlake Grand Foyer, lobby level

Although the region’s economy has been struggling, the Hylton Center brought millions of dollars of economic benefits to the partner communities before even opening its doors. The center has provided more than 200 construction jobs a day for nearly two years. During its first few years in operation, the center will provide more than 20 full- and part-time positions.

In addition, almost all of the major naming opportunities, ranging from the performance spaces to the sculpture garden to the dressing rooms, have been funded by local community leaders, individuals and corporations. In fact, all of the available boxes in Merchant Hall have been named for specific major donors and philanthropic groups.

Several spaces in the center, such as Merchant Hall, the Gregory Family Theater and the Didlake Grand Foyer, are available for rent by individuals or organizations for almost any type of event.

The new facility will continue to financially benefit the university, city, county, and state. It is expected to bring a direct economic impact of nearly $7 million annually with increased demand for new restaurants, stores and other local businesses.

In addition, more than 1,000 volunteers are waiting in the wings to help with performances and other special events.

A Place to Call Home

The Gregory Family Theater

The Hylton Center brings cultural benefits to the surrounding communities, and its programs and events reflect the wide range of performing arts activities in the region and diverse interests in the community.

More than 10 local and regional arts groups call the center home, among them the NOVA Manassas Symphony Orchestra, Little Theatre of Prince William and the Youth Orchestras of Prince William.

During the first year alone, more than 125 performances are expected to take place, including international touring artists such as Leahy, the National Philharmonic of Poland, Rockapella and the Russian National Ballet.

In addition to the economic and cultural benefits to the region, the center will have a major impact on the academic life of Mason’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) and provide excellent facilities in which students and faculty members can train, rehearse and perform.

Mason-sponsored programs such as the Potomac Arts Academy, a community outreach branch of CVPA, and Theater of the First Amendment, Mason’s professional theater company, are now planning to expand their programs into the Prince William community.

Gala Celebration Begins May 21

When the curtain finally rises, the Hylton Performing Arts Center will open its doors in style with grand opening events from Friday, May 21, through Sunday, May 23. The following grand opening events are sponsored by Novant Health:

  • A performance by Leahy will kick off the weekend events on Friday, May 21, at 8 p.m. in Merchant Hall. This Canadian octet of brothers and sisters celebrate their Irish and Scottish roots with fiddle-driven music, meticulous step dancing and captivating vocals. The performance will be followed by a reception for the entire audience. Tickets are $34, $42 and $50.
  • On Saturday, May 22, at 8 p.m., the American Festival Pops Orchestra will perform in Merchant Hall. Under the baton of Anthony Maiello, professor of conducting in Mason’s School of Music, the concert features Lisa Vroman, a Broadway sensation who starred in “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables,” as well as Thomas Pandolfi, piano virtuoso. The performance will be followed by a reception for the entire audience. Tickets are $75 and $125.
  • The entire community is invited to experience the Hylton Center’s resident arts groups at Hylton Family Day on Sunday, May 23, from 1 to 5 p.m. Families can enjoy performances by local theater, dance and music ensembles such as VpStart Crow Productions, Manassas Ballet and the Woodbridge Flute Choir. Tickets are $10 for adults; children through high school age are admitted free. Picnic fare will be available for purchase beginning at noon.

For more information about the Hylton Performing Arts Center, opening weekend events and to purchase tickets, visit the web site,

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