Mission Driven Design

Buildings are three-dimensional structures but, at its best, architecture is 4-D. Let me explain.

It’s always fun to see a two-dimensional design become a 3-D building. But the real reward is when a building becomes something more than four walls and a roof . . . it becomes a stage on which life’s daily dramas are acted out. That’s what’s happening at The Prospector Theater in Ridgefield, Connecticut. And a whole new dimension is taking shape in what was once an abandoned property.

The Prospector began life in 1940 as the Ridgefield Playhouse designed by John Eberson, an architect renowned for his exuberant “movie palace” designs during Hollywood’s heyday including the magnificent Loews Paradise Theater in The Bronx. But by the 1970s the Playhouse had seen better days and was eventually gutted and turned into a bank. The bank closed its doors in 2007 and proud building sat vacant for four years. That’s when Valerie Jensen, the then president of a local social organization SPHERE, saw an opportunity to create something special for people with developmental disabilities while bringing movies back to Ridgefield.

From the early stages of planning and design for this project, the most significant objective for us was ‘mission driven design.’ The Prospector Theater is the first of its kind – a non-profit first run movie theater; however, the movie theater use is secondary to its primary use as a vocational training facility for adults with developmental disabilities.

In Jensen’s vision, employees are referred to as ‘Prospects’ and are trained to work in the theater. Additionally, each Prospect selects an area of interest, i.e. technology, hospitality, retail, etc. and receives extra training that allows them to pursue their passions. The goal for each Prospect is that through employment at the theater, they will eventually graduate and move on to ‘prospective’ jobs in their area of interest elsewhere in the community.

We worked with Jensen and SPHERE to make this vision a reality by converting what was once a 500-seat, single screen theater into a community destination with four screening rooms, a café, a restaurant, a bar/lounge and a generous lobby where people can meet for a date or a family night out.

Cleverly, the features that make The Prospector a fun place to go see a movie also present a range of training opportunities for Prospects including ticketing, concessions, barista, baker, chef, hospitality, retail, technology, film, event planning, custodial work, advertising, marketing. The flexibility of these spaces was essential to accommodate the maximum number of uses, events and job opportunities. The Prospector Theater opened in November 2014 and now employs more than 80 Prospects and counting!

NBC Nightly News recently featured the Prospector Theater in its ‘Making a Difference’ segment. The night after it aired nationwide, NBC Nightly News revisited the story due to the overwhelming response and support for the theater from their viewers.

All of us at DCA certainly feel honored to have been able to be a part of this project and to have had the opportunity to help bring Valerie’s beautiful vision to life.

Congratulations Prospector, sparkle on!