Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Quigg Newton Auditorium / Semple Brown Design

© Ron Pollard

The Ellie Caulkins Opera House was originally designed to put on the map – with this new opera house there is an opportunity to do it all over again. Inspired by many of the world’s greatest opera houses such as La Scala or the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House is designed with a classic lyric format. This design allowed the builders to make the best use of the limited space available while striving to create a theatre focused on audience comfort and outstanding sightlines and acoustics. But while the team chose an elegant and classic style, the hall also features many distinctive innovations.

Project description, images, and drawings after the break.

Architect: Semple Brown Design
Location: 14th & Curtis Streets, Denver, Colorado,
Project Team: Sarah Semple Brown, AIA (Principal in Charge of Design), Peter Lucking (Theatre Design), Bryan Schmidt, LEED AP, AIA (Project Architect), Mary Kay Sunset, LEED AP, ASID (Interior Design Principal), Chris Wineman (Communications Lead)
Associate Architect: Luis O. Acosta
Acoustical and Sound Consultant: Robert F. Mahoney & Associates
Theatre Consultants: Fisher Dachs Associates and Public Assembly Consultants
Architectural Lighting: Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design
Structural Engineers: Martin/Martin Inc.
Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing Engineers: M-E Engineers, Inc.
Life Safety Consultant: Rolf Jensen & Associates, Inc.
Civil Engineers: The Lund Partnership
Signage and Graphic Design Consultant: TaCito Design, Inc.
Kitchen Consultants: Ricca Newmark Design
Project Area: 280,000 sqf
Project Year: 2005
Photographs: Ron Pollard

© Ron Pollard

Working closely with Denver’s Division of Theatres and Arenas, Semple Brown Design considered many options before launching the final concept for the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. The firm had been in discussions with the City as early as 1993, trying to solve this unique puzzle. To begin the design process, members of the firm first considered the state of the old Auditorium Theatre and the needs of the people and organizations that would eventually use the new theatre. One of the most difficult challenges facing the construction team was demolishing the interior of the building while leaving the historic exterior in tact.


Arriving in the lobby, one senses the volume of the space. The eye is drawn from the central entrances to the sides and the majestic sweep of the grand staircase. For practical reasons, this helps direct patrons to circulation points and services such as the main lobby bars and the restrooms. The curves of the space also create a sense of drama in the lobby. The architecture is designed to be timeless – there are no trendy colors. The finishes are really very simple and honest. The design team intended for the patron to be the person on show in the lobby.

main level floor plan

The Ellie Caulkins Opera House features the Figaro System, individual screens at each seat that have the ability to translate the dialogue on stage in up to seven languages. The slope of the balconies toward the stage, the ziggurat walls on each side, the curves on the front of the side balconies and the vertical volume of the space are all designed to enhance the natural sound of the hall. Moveable walls within the orchestra pit adjust to the size of the orchestra and serve as sound reflectors, a design advance unique to this facility. All lines in the theatre direct one’s attention to the stage. The designers wanted to create a relationship between the performer and audience. The farthest seat in the hall is only 113 feet from the stage, twenty-four feet closer to the stage than in the old theatre.

© Ron Pollard

In addition to serving the needs of the audience, the opera house is also designed to serve the needs of the performer. Semple Brown Design created backstage spaces designed to make performers comfortable and at ease. The facility is humidified to protect fragile instruments and fragile voices. The off-stage areas feel like a home with comfortable areas to read or roomy dressing rooms that can accommodate a full-sized Bösendorfer piano for rehearsals and warm-ups. In addition to the front of the house, all backstage areas are fully wheelchair accessible.

balcony level floor plan

In addition to serving the audience and the performer, the building is also designed to serve the needs of the performing organization. The Grant Chambers Salon on the lower level offers organizations the ability to cultivate donors by offering special event space. Easy access to the Salon from the orchestra level is inspired by a similar design at the Palais Garnier in Paris.

© Ron Pollard
© Ron Pollard

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Cite: "Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Quigg Newton Auditorium / Semple Brown Design" 16 Mar 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=119579>