Among the sea of ornate academic buildings housed on Lehigh’s Asa Packer campus, one building stands out among the rest — both in its aesthetic and ambiance. The contemporary Zoellner Arts Center now celebrates its 20 years of teaching artistry, its various performances and the gaps it has bridged between the university and the local community.
The initial intention for the building in 1997 was straightforward: to create a space that would elevate Lehigh’s status as a liberal arts institution, beyond engineering and business programs. Lehigh’s eleventh president, Peter Likins, sought to attract creative thinkers and saw the merit in having a place that fosters creativity.
With its three theaters — the 1,000-seat Baker Hall, the 300-seat Diamond Theater and the 125-seat Black Box Theatre — Likins’s dream has since materialized.
The arts center has appealed to many students on campus, including Mustard and Cheese Drama Society’s president, Adrienne Chodnowsky, ’17, who said the theater department factored into her decision to attend Lehigh, and Rebecca Fryer, ’17, who pursued an unintended theater minor.
“The faculty has talked many times about the types of students that are coming into campus over the last 20 years,” said Andrew Cassano, the administrative director of Zoellner. “They are many times very different, in a very positive way, because they are very artistically creative, but they are not majors in music or theater. I’ve had students tell me they approach their engineering problems like they approach improvising as a jazz musician.”
Before 1997, the arts at Lehigh had no official home, Cassano said. Art installations and performances had to take place in buildings that weren’t designed for performances of any sort. The choir would perform in Grace Hall. The drama department had their performances in Wilbur Powerhouse, and certain shows would even be held at Broughal Middle School.
“The drama department is like a cockroach at Lehigh,” Chodnowsky said. “It could survive an apocalypse. The show must always go on.”
There is a high student-held passion for the various arts organizations at Lehigh — from Mustard and Cheese to the lighting crew to the jazz band.
Fryer got into drama for a different reason than Chodnowsky. Fryer said her mom refused to visit freshman year unless she took part in a show. However, both Chodnowsky and Fryer auditioned for a show the first chance they got. Since then, both students said they spend a large majority of their time at Zoellner, going far enough to dub it their home.
“It’s a lot more open, physically,” Fryer said. “It’s not like Rauch where it’s filled with frat boys. It’s the art department, so it’s the crazy, funny theater kids and the talented musical people. It’s an entirely different atmosphere because it is more creative.”
Chodnowsky admitted to falling asleep on the green room couches numerous times after going through 12-hour-long tech rehearsals.
“There are so many times I’ve just been zonked,” Chodnowsky said. “I’ve taken more naps in Zoellner than I have in my own bed.”
Beyond serving as a creative safe haven for Lehigh students, there are also many opportunities for community members to take advantage of performances and events that Zoellner holds. Cassano said the center hosted, presented and produced about 270 events last year alone. Of those events, about half of them were brought to Zoellner by the outside community.
The Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley does two of its major performances on campus at the center, including its rendition of “The Nutcracker.” The Touchstone Theater and Pennsylvania Youth Theatre also hold several productions throughout the year and the Chamber of Commerce holds events at the arts center.
“The people who were on the campus for more than 20 years have all said the campus has completely changed from how it’s been viewed as a community,” Cassano said.
To celebrate Zoellner’s 20-year anniversary, the arts center is hoping to go beyond simply raising its fundraising goals. Zoellner is trying to put out a “public story” about not only its past but also its aspirations for the next 20 years, Cassano said.
A video will come out soon featuring interviews with Lehigh staff such as President John Simon and Provost Pat Farrell, Zoellner’s corporate partners and long-term subscribers, who have had relations with the arts center since its birth.
“My time at Zoellner with the theater department has made my Lehigh experience,” Fryer said. “Lehigh is kind of tough, in that it is very fast-paced and competitive. But then you get into Zoellner and the environment changes. It’s a secret weapon for Lehigh.”