If you haven't seen the Gaillard lately, well, it's because there's not much to see.
The old auditorium is pretty much gone — its west wall is standing a block away from the east wall and the old stage. In between, there's dirt. A lot of dirt.
And the Preservation Society of Charleston is none too happy about that.
“They're moving earth,” says Evan R. Thompson, the society's executive director. “This is not what we'd call a renovation. This is a demolition.”
Now, the Preservation Society is not protesting the loss of the '60s-era building; in their eyes it wasn't worth saving.
But Thompson says if the community had known this renovation would have included tearing down so much of the Gaillard, folks may have looked harder at other alternatives.
Or found something better to do with that space, seeing as how it's been just about cleared.
Bricks in the wall?
As you might imagine, Mayor Joe Riley is none too happy with the Preservation Society.
“They're wrong,” Riley says. “This is precisely what was approved.”
He says the idea all along was to take out the middle of the auditorium.
Apparently not many people read the fine print, because a lot of folks are just as surprised as the Preservation Society by the hole in the skyline.
But the only thing that has changed with the project, the mayor says, is that the bricks that were supposed to stay on the remaining walls have been removed. He says that's because construction crews found those bricks weren't attached to the walls in a safe manner. They were taken down and will be put back up.
Two-and-a-half years ago, when the renovation first came up, it was reported that the Gaillard would not be demolished, but much of the building would be wrapped in a new fašade. City offices would be added to the facility and the performance hall would be made smaller.
It's certainly smaller now. Or larger, depending on your view.
Thompson thinks the city was less than transparent with that description. There's nothing left to wrap a new fašade around except the corners of the old auditorium.
This, he says, probably doesn't instill a lot of trust in the city from Ansonborough residents, who didn't like the idea of more traffic in the neighborhood from the start.
“It feeds cynicism when people think they are getting one thing and they are getting something else,” Thompson says.
The Preservation Society never liked this idea.
It believed Charleston should have built a new auditorium on the Union Pier property, close to the waterfront. Thompson said one of the arguments against the proposal was that we weren't getting a new auditorium, just renovating the old one.
And, as he says, this isn't a renovation.
Riley shot down that idea last year, noting that it would have cost a lot more money to build a new facility on property the city would have to buy. As it is, the city is on the hook for $71 million of the $142 million project. The rest will be raised privately by the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation.
In fact, it was a $20 million anonymous gift that set this whole project in motion. The foundation is currently courting large donors and hasn't started its public fundraising campaign, so it isn't talking about how much has been raised. But the commitment is in writing — the city won't be stuck with the bill.
Riley says the auditorium is on schedule and within its budget, and that he believes the community is going to be thrilled with the world-class facility when it opens in less than two years.
“I would think the Preservation Society will be embarrassed that they opposed this when it opens,” the mayor says.
But don't buy tickets to that show just yet.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org or read his blog at blog.postandcourier.com/brians-blog.
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