McAllen exterior
McAllen-based ERO Architects designed the striking exterior. Massive concrete walls were covered in stucco to block noise from aircraft.

McAllen Bold And Bright In The Rio Grande Valley, Part One

Building Blocks

The original McAllen Civic Center opened in 1959 and was home to the Valley Symphony Orchestra, countless dance recitals, music concerts, and school graduations. Residents felt a strong connection to the old building; however, studies proved necessary renovations would be more expensive than building a new facility.

The city’s recently completed convention center was very successful. Land was available next to the facility so the city sold the old site to developers for $9 million and moved forward with plans to build a new 1,800-seat hall. The project was funded almost entirely by the City of McAllen as an amenity to its diverse population. Its intent was to showcase local talent and bring in the touring Broadway productions that avoided McAllen due to the poor condition of the original civic center. The project began in 2014 and was completed in 2016.


A true multi-use hall with excellent acoustics was needed to support the city’s diverse programming needs. Programming included the Valley Symphony accompanied by a full chorus for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, loud popular music acts, and touring Broadway shows.

The site itself was noisy. It sat directly beneath the low-flying aircraft serving McAllen International Airport.


The previous study was competed by Theater Projects and showed a strong need for an 1,800-seat hall for touring Broadway shows and local performances. However, the city had limited funds for a high-performance building in need of superior sound isolation.

A conceptual design was produced by Jaffe Holden, Schuler Shook, Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture, and ERO Architects. It featured a number of innovations:

  1. Eliminate the costly and inefficient side box seating currently en vogue in hall design, and concentrate instead on achieving the necessary acoustic volume with shallow balconies in order to produce excellent acoustics.
  2. Construct the hall from locally-sourced, sound-attenuating concrete, and minimize trucking in costly steel structures.
  3. Create decorative, acoustically-shaped hoops or rings in the ceiling and walls to surround and embrace the audience, reminiscent of New York’s great Art Deco halls like Radio City and Chicago’s Auditorium Theater. 

Initial designs had solid rings surrounding the hall. They were modified to be more open in order to improve the acoustic performance and coupling to the outer volume.

Creating the Building

The design team included New York-based Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture, McAllen-based ERO Architects, theatre consultant Schuler Shook, and Jaffe Holden. The new facility included an 1,800-seat hall, a large multi-purpose room, lobby, and support areas—all fully realized for a construction cost below $450 per square foot.

A. Portable Wenger Diva orchestra shell. Wood veneer shell towers stores off-stage. Ceilings tip and fly, and store in the fly loft. B. Pit lift/stage extension. Modestly sized for Broadway productions. C. Four ceiling rings with integral convex wood acoustic reflectors for early reflections. D. Permanent house mix position, with removable front wall. E. Side wall and rear wall acoustic drapes store in side wall pockets. F. Ceiling acoustic drapes store in central pockets.

Acoustic Design Concepts

In my textbook, The Acoustics Of Multi-Use Performing Arts Centers, I discuss how outstanding acoustics can only be achieved when critical acoustic criteria are in alignment. This includes room volume, reverberation (RT), the timed arrival of early and late reflections, and the freedom of echoes and negative reflections that arrive after 150 milliseconds (ms).

The hall volume in McAllen was established to be 375 cubic feet per person for 1,800 seats with a target RT of 2.0 seconds when the hall was fully occupied with audience and performers. The acoustic volume was built of 18'' to 24'' of solid concrete in order to support bass frequencies, produce a bass ratio (BR) of 1.4 seconds, and provide adequate sound isolation.

1,2,3. Orchestra shell ceilings


In my experience, optimal presence and clarity is achieved when early sound reflections from the stage arrive at the listener within 40 ms of the direct sound. Optimal spaciousness is achieved when reflections arrive from the sides of listeners within 80 ms of the direct sound from the stage. However, in order to bring as much of the audience as close as possible to McAllen’s performers, the hall width was expanded beyond these conditions. To overcome this challenge and provide reflections at the prescribed time intervals, our team designed innovative steel rings with massive wood reflectors to wrap the seating area and effectively narrow the acoustic width.

Steel rings and wood acoustic reflectors provide the sound reflections and visual intimacy of a narrower hall. Eliminating side boxes allowed funding to go toward more program spaces.

Architectural Details

A concrete stage and concrete hall enclosure combined with a multi-layered roof construction isolates the hall from all but the loudest of military jets. A huge air plenum was constructed beneath the seating to sound-temper and balance the supply air needed to cool 1,800 seats in Texas’ arid climate.

The Rings

Wall and ceiling reflections needed to arrive a short time after the direct sound from the performers in order for the hall to have clarity, presence, and vitality. The outside walls were well over 100' apart, so a new devise was needed to create those reflections and meet the architectural needs for a dynamic and exciting space that embraced the audience without resorting to over-used side boxes. The solution was a series of four steel hoops or rings more than 38' high and 80' wide.

More than 10,000 children from the Rio Grande Valley attended symphony tuning concerts. Note the wood-veneered MDF reflectors mounted to the rings in order to achieve sound reflection, diffusion, and blending. This also allowed for simplified outer wall constructions of flat drywall and concrete.

LED lighting attached to the rings draws the eye to an inner surface made of wood-veneered MDF panels. These 1''-thick MDF panels were custom-made to our exact curvature, bracing, and framing specifications in Wenger’s factory in Minnesota, and then trucked down to south Texas for installation on the rings. The MDF locations were designated by carefully modeling the needed reflections on our acoustic software program and directing the architects as to a specific location. If the pattern was too solid, sound would be blocked from reaching the concrete outer acoustic volume. If it wasn’t solid enough, sound would be dull and lifeless due to a reduction in reflections.

The curvature of the panels was also modeled to be ¾'' in a convex shape angled towards the audience. This resulted in additional clarity, definition, and intimacy for symphony and opera programming. Because lateral sound reflections were enhanced, diffusion was increased for evenness of sound as well as excellent sound blending.

Side Boxes

Modern multi-use halls often build shallow side boxes within the hall in an effort to enhance sound reflections to the audience and increase visual intimacy. This was the case for our recent project work in Salt Lake City’s Utah Performing Arts Center and Little Rock’s Robinson Hall.

The soffits and wood balcony fronts bring a pleasing, fatter sound, and distribute audience sound back to the musicians. However, complex steel framing is required in addition to corridors, stairs, and elevators, and this drives up the cost of construction.

In an effort to allocate funding that would serve a greater number of patrons, the owner and design team decided to go in another direction. The acoustic function of the side boxes was achieved through the use of side-located wood panels. Income-generating rental spaces were built including a multi-use community room, an expanded lobby, and VIP rooms.

Orchestra Shell

Maestro Peter Dabrowski conducts the Valley Symphony Orchestra for a tuning concert. Note the innovative wood orchestra shell ceiling that matches the rings and stores compactly in the rigging. The “Steel Tube Apparatus” forward of the proscenium has space for rigging of screens, speakers, and lighting.

Jaffe Holden’s philosophy on symphony acoustics is derived from a desire for honest sound. We believe sound should not be embellished or altered by an orchestra shell, rather it should be true to the instruments and musicians. Working in tandem with Nestor Bottino of Holzman Moss Bottino and Jack Hagler of Schuler Shook, we designed 30' tall wood orchestra shell towers and uniquely-shaped stepped ceilings to blend and support symphony and choral sound and to project sound out to the audience. The stepped shell ceiling complements the articulated proscenium opening that rises higher in the center than on the sides. Acoustic benefits of this design include additional sound blending and diffusion as well as enhanced on stage hearing between sections.

Acoustic Drapes

Multi-use halls require a large swing in reverberation time in order to achieve optimum acoustics. Our experience has shown that large areas of acoustic drapes must be fully integrated into the deign from the earliest phases in order to adequately adjust reverberation from 2.0 seconds down to 1.4 seconds for Broadway and amplified shows.

The ring design allows for the free movement of very large side wall acoustic drapes (26 oz. and 100% full). They are hung 15'' from the wall for optimal low-frequency absorption and for lowest cost per Sabine.

In McAllen, large areas of heavy velour drapes track on motorized rails to deploy in a matter of seconds to efficiently reduce reverberation. Huge drapes along all side walls from the last row of seating to the proscenium and up 70' high generate an astoundingly huge swing in RT. The absence of side boxes grants this unusual opportunity for unhindered acoustic drapes.

Six acoustic drapes run across the hall above the wood ceiling panels and store in center line pockets. Each side wall features four very large drapes, almost 100' long and up to 40' tall. These are stored in pockets at the front and rear of the hall. In total, over 11,000 square feet of 100% full, 26 oz. per square yard IFR velour can be preset into multiple locations to tune the hall for a full range of programming.

Acoustic drape preset control systems by Texas Scenic allow for tuning of more than 11,000 square feet of velour.

Noise Control

Having a generous site allowed the luxury of having a separate wing for the noisy air handlers and chillers needed to provide quiet airflow throughout the hall. Locating this equipment on grade took advantage of the vibration dampening qualities of the valley’s sandy soil supporting the floor slab and eliminated the need for expensive acoustic isolation joints. The mechanical engineers specified custom-built quiet air handlers that used multiple smaller fans in a fan array, rather than a single large blower. By generating less noise from the onset, there was less noise to attenuate. This resulted in a remarkably low background noise level of less than NC-15 both on stage and in the hall. It made sense structurally and mechanically to use an under-floor supply system for the main floor and the balconies. Units on grade fed tunnels under the stage that emptied into the plenum and reduced the amount of sheet metal ducts needed.

To eliminate air noise in the hall and stage, we specified multiple low-noise Climate Craft custom air handlers. Each AHU has six to nine small fans in an array, 4''-thick perforated casings, and spring vibration isolators.

Stay tuned for Part Two in October!          

Mark Holden is chairman and lead acoustic designer at Jaffe Holden. He has collaborated on hundreds of diverse performance and exhibition space designs throughout the world. Holden thrives on the creative design processes that call on his unique skills as an engineer, physicist, communicator, and jazz musician to create superior acoustic environments. In January of 2016, he released Acoustics of Multi-Use Performing Arts Centers, a guide to achieving outstanding acoustics in flexible spaces, published by Taylor & Francis Group.

Design Team

  • Architect of Record: ERO Architects
  • Theater Architect: Holzman Moss Bottino
  • Theater Consultant: Schuler Shook


  • Facility Size: 93,000 square feet
  • 1,820 seats
  • Support Spaces

Scope Of Work

  • Architectural Acoustics
  • Sound Isolation
  • Sound and Vibration Control
  • AV Systems Design

Client: City of McAllen, Texas

Completion Date: 2016

Project Costs: $45 million

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