By Emma Young | Photos by Delia Engstrom
In an evening of stunning opera and lively jazz, Angela Knight, internationally-performing soprano, unveiled plans this past Thursday to open a community arts center in the aging Thomasson Barn, near the corner of Routes 234 and 28 in Manassas. Knight witnessed an surge of support for her site concept, “The Knight Center,” which includes a large theater space, and programmatic activities such as music training, after-school programs, children’s gardens, farmers’ markets, seasonal outdoor events, art exhibitions, Scouting events, weddings and other community activities. “I was overwhelmed by the public outpouring and response,” stated Knight. “It’s encouraging to know so many people have the same vision.”
Thomasson Barn is a landmark in the county. A 1920s dairy barn, the large multi-storied brick-structure with 2 attached mammoth silos facing Route 234, is highly recognizable. Designed by project architects Richard Sewall and Richard Adams, the renovated building vision keeps intact the site’s cultural and architectural heritage while adding new features, such as a commercial-grade kitchen. “The restoration and repurposing of the barn will at once preserve a beautiful historic building, in itself a valuable touchstone with our past, and, at the same time, in a sensitive manner, transform it into a high-performance contemporary building, complete with a… entertainment venue,” Adams described in an e-mail interview.
Adams outlined why the former dairy barn is perfect for a community arts center. “[It] was actually a very simple structure with only three types of interior spaces… designed for only one purpose: feed storage, hay storage, or milk collection,” he delineated. “Besides yielding a very pure, in fact iconic building form, this direct and minimalist approach…yields a building form with large open interior spaces, allowing for flexibility.” Milking bays become conference rooms, restrooms, and administrative offices. Hay storage is transformed into an intimate training and performance hall. The twin silos will continue to stand, no longer storing cattle feed, but housing an elevator and other support features. “Here, fledgling artists will experience their earliest performances under the bright lights before supportive audiences of their loved ones, family, friends, and community,” said Adams.
Currently owned by Prince William County government, the structure has been vacant for close to 60 years. No utilities or roads run to the site and portions of the building are crumbling. Project Development Director Frances Halpern was pleased by the crowd’s obvious support for the project, noting that people began donating and offering in-kind support and assistance to see the vision become a reality. “This plan is a true community project. It is a modern-day barn-raising and it will take the support of many to see it to fruition,” Halpern portrayed. Does she think it can be accomplished? “We’re proposing a charming performance space for dancing, music, art, and drama in a civic-minded and cherished historic setting on a beautiful site supporting wholesome community activities and enjoyment. We’re inundated with calls of support. It will take work, and we’re asking for and need help, but it will happen,” Halpern enthused. “Ultimately,” noted Knight, “it will be the collective effort of the community that makes the vision a reality.” Angela Knight and Frances Halpern can be reached at [email protected].
Emma Young is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother residing in Dumfries. She is now volunteering as Administrative support for The Knight Center.