Spectrum Design Architecs | Engineers

Center In The Square

Roanoke, Virginia


The idea for Center in the Square was first “born” out of Roanoke’s comprehensive revitalization project called Design ’79. It was the centerpiece of the downtown redevelopment initiative. More than 40,000 visitors came on opening day to visit the five arts and science organizations housed under its roof when it opened in December 1983. In 2010, Center in the Square closed for more than $27 million in renovations that would bring it into the 21st Century cultural center arena. It reopened to great fanfare on May 18, 2013.


The original Center in the Square was housed in a 100-year old building—one of the favorites on the City Market— where a round of renovations took place in the 1980s. Construction’s best practices today focus on bringing life to a facility for the next 50 to 100 years and ensuring the environmental impact is minimized. Center in the Square is Spectrum Design’s masterpiece of architecture and engineering—every detail of the restored Center in the Square tells a visual story and pays homage to the Roanoke region and its history.

Spectrum Design’s team undertook a complex structural analysis that resulted in designing and engineering a building in order to superimpose a large self-contained environment that sits on top of the building—a two-story glass butterfly habitat, a technology garden and a living wall that were the wow factors for the top floor. Another consideration involved the 5000 gallon live coral reef aquarium that now greets visitors in the lobby. The building’s structural integrity and its ability to withstand environmental forces was studied. The team needed to know just how much weight the existing structure could support without having the original blueprints for reference. Each one required different environmental conditions and careful thought about surrounding traffic and access, weight, maintenance, and reliable and predictable power distribution. The in-depth analysis led the team to design and engineer a building within a building to meet all of the requirements.


In addition to extraordinary engineering, Spectrum Design’s renovation work restored many architectural features that were lost over time, such as the original cornices, 15-foot windows and first floor transoms. What may seem like ordinary and purely functional window grills are a tribute to the old Shooting Star Roller Coaster. The tile work around the ticket booth is representative of nearby geological formations. The lighting fixtures are a nod to the Mill Mountain Star. Dorothy Gillespie’s wall sculpture was preserved and hangs even more prominently than before. These are just a few examples of the rich detail and imagination that can be found in the architectural design elements of this project.

Center in the Square is on track to be designated by the U.S. Green Building Council as LEED-Silver. In addition to an abundance of natural day lighting, some of the green features include:
  • New energy efficient heating and cooling systems were installed, as well as new water-efficient and waterless plumbing fixtures;
  • Low-VOC materials were used; Spectrum Design estimates that the efficiency upgrades will allow the building to perform 10 to 15 percent more efficiently that existing code requirements;
  • A “green roof” with a planted garden that will sustain itself through captured rainwater, a PV array for generating electricity through sunlight, and green wall systems that will shade the building; and,
  • By preserving a large portion of the existing building, few new materials had to be produced and likewise fewer materials ended up in landfills.

Spectrum Design is a regional leader in the design of buildings that teach visitors through architecture and design. The firm hopes Center in the Square will be an educational tool for area students and adults) not only via the exhibits but also by examining the building itself:
  • Exposed building features that were previously hidden, such as the mechanical systems that keep visitors warm or cool and maintain museum standard air quality are now open to view and study.
  • The support rooms—for the butterfly habitat, aquariums, and other Science Museum of Western Virginia exhibits—are visible and demonstrate all that goes into keeping the exhibits running effectively and efficiently.
  • The rooftop rainwater collection system, living wall, and Photovoltaic array are all functional support elements that do double duty as real-world educational applications.

In addition to the Science Museum of Western Virginia, the Center houses the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, the History Museum of Western Virginia and the Mill Mountain Theatre.