Mar 10, 2021

Concealed, indirect sources transform a centuries-old campus building into a gathering space with museum-quality lighting

By Samantha Schwirck

When Bicentennial Hall was built in 1855, it wasn’t meant to be internally illuminated. Over the years, the oldest academic building at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) in Alexandria, VA, has served as a library, dining hall and, most recently, a classroom space. Then, in 2018, three stone panel carvings from the palace of the Assyrian king (circa 850 BCE) changed its course again—and this time, the building’s lighting followed suit.

After re-assessing the value of the carvings, which had been in the Seminary’s library for 150 years, VTS decided to sell one of the three and pour the funds into an adaptive re-use and renovation of the 1,400-sq ft building. A centerpiece of the project was the fabrication of a display case for the remaining two panels, and the commissioning of a replica casting of the auctioned panel. Thus, the Bicentennial Hall project team—including Bowie Gridley Architects, RAM Design Studio and Stroik Lighting Design—got to work transforming the historic interior into a flexible space that could accommodate gatherings and meetings, while also exhibiting the Assyrian artifacts under museum-quality lighting.

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The lighting concept required a non-invasive approach from Christopher Stroik, principal of Stroik Lighting Design (Washington D.C.). “The lighting is predicated on serving the architectural, exhibition and functional uses of this ‘jewel box,’ paying homage to each distinct element in a fully integrated manner that attempts not to draw any attention away from the visual expressions and experiences of the space,” Stroik explains. “The biggest challenge was developing a strategy to reveal the quality and intimacy of the architectural volume and its ornament, as well as provide display and multipurpose illumination, all while not allowing the lighting hardware to distract, so that the room would be visually accessible.”

To that end, almost all of the luminaires are concealed in architectural profiles and details, including the indirect sources that simultaneously provide volumetric accent lighting of the vertical surfaces and ceiling, as well as horizontal task lighting.

For example, linear LED adjustable double strip lights with asymmetric indirect distribution are mounted to a custom bracket behind existing historic wooden railings, as well as within a custom housing that has the same profile as the railing and includes a remote driver for the strips. “We worked with the manufacturer [Elliptipar] to modify their standard fixture that typically integrates the driver,” Stroik explains. “There are two conditions—one where we have mounted the linear adjustable asymmetric fitting to a metal shelf tucked behind the balcony balustrade and the other where we had a metal fabricator replicate the solid wood balustrade into a ‘flying’ metal balustrade that carries the same adjustable fittings and remote drivers within. This was a really successful way to offer the same ambient and functional illumination throughout the room rather than suspending a pendant version of this fitting.”

Additional indirect sources include linear LED strip lights with custom curved metal angle baffles (Luminii), which wash the walls below the balconies, and linear adjustable luminaires (EcoSense Trov) mounted behind purlin arches, which illuminate bearing walls. Finally, linear narrow optic tape light (Luminii), mounted to each of the purlins with metal valances, further emphasizes the character of the ceiling. “We envisioned the entire room as a luminaire, where the articulated ceiling surfaces act as reflectors,” Stroik explains. “The indirect lighting delivers over 20 horizontal footcandles at the work plane, thus providing adequate task and ambient illumination for meetings, lectures and workshops.”

The two-sided glass case housing the original stone panel carvings also contains integrated linear LED strip lights (Luminii) for fill light at the top of the display volume, as well as a concealed very-narrow grazing strip (Electrix) illuminating the back surface of the panels. In addition, surface-mounted adjustable accent luminaires with very-narrow optics graze the replica panel from a high point above the arch wall. Finally, two motorized spotlights (Martin Lighting) offer flexible accent lighting for speakers.

A building-wide dimming control system (Lutron Quantum) interfaced with the A/V controls enables multiple lighting scenarios for various room functions and helps minimize energy use via occupancy sensors. “[It’s a] simple-to-use system that offers flexible lighting for different needs and times of day,” Stroik says. “Preset scenes allow for normal day or evening settings and display, as well as for specific activities—lectures from up to three locations, meetings around a central table, A/V presentations, and dining/lounge events.”

From behind the scenes, the lighting strategy helps transform two separate entities—the renovated interior and the artistic expression of the tablets—into one coherent concept. More importantly, the lighting enhances the space without intruding on the original, and unlit, design concept.

“The most cutting-edge lighting strategy for the project was to almost completely conceal every luminaire used with the exception of the motorized spotlights and the accent lights that illuminate the artifacts and graphic panels,” Stroik says. “The use of the indirect sources to generate ambient, architectural and functional illumination from one source type that is fully concealed from view is our greatest claim to the value of this project—where the engagement with this lovely little period piece is unfettered by imposing lighting hardware and elements that would detract from its integrity of expression as a unique 19th-century academic jewel box.”

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Samantha Schwirck

Samantha Schwirck is Managing Editor for... More info »