One of the city's most ambitious and expensive building projects in memory. A state-of-the-art venue and exhibition hall that will transform the area between eastern Calhoun and George streets. A work of contextual architecture worthy of the city around it.

Those phrases aptly describe what Charleston hopes to achieve by converting the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium into the "Gaillard Center," a $142 million makeover that would re-skin and expand the auditorium to create new city offices, a superior concert hall and more usable event space.

But those phrases also could have been written when the Gaillard was designed and built in the 1960s.

Today's proposed Gaillard conversion doesn't so much reflect a shift in Charleston's ambitions, but it certainly demonstrates the change in her wealth, growth, taste and urban values.

Architects Frank Lucas and Sidney Stubbs designed the original auditorium after hours in their flooded ground floor office at Rutledge Avenue and Beaufain Street. They weren't after the competition's $1,500 prize as much as the chance to raise the profile of their fledgling practice by designing the Lowcountry's largest performance hall.

The budget was $3 million to $4 million -- a sum that, adjusted for inflation, adds up to $20 millionto $25 million today, which is less than one-sixth of what the city now plans to spend. And the current plan gains a financial edge by reusing much of the Gaillard's original foundation and structural bones.

The new center reflects the Lowcountry's growth in profound ways. While the Gaillard served as the city's main venue, hosting circuses and rock concerts in addition to fine arts, today's big events go to either the North Charleston Coliseum or the Carolina First Arena.

That's why the Gaillard's makeover actually would contract the number of seats by one-third, creating a 1,800-seat performance hall more suitable for fine concerts and operas, but not the right place for Joe Walsh.

But the new project also reflects the growth along eastern Calhoun Street. The original Gaillard was built in a neighborhood considered a slum. Only one old building (now the Civic Design Center at 85 Calhoun) was left on the site. A few were moved away. Most were torn down.

Today, the Gaillard is surrounded by a large parking garage and several larger buildings, two designed by LS3P Associates, the successor firm to Lucas and Stubbs that Lucas now heads.

Lucas says the original idea would have placed the auditorium along Calhoun Street, but tests showed the city could save almost 10 percent of the project's cost by moving it back toward George Street, which was originally high ground, as opposed to Calhoun, a former creek bed.

Lucas says the Gaillard looked best decades ago in the late fall, when dozens of ginkgo trees in its parking lot turned a brilliant yellow.

Stubbs, now retired from Stubbs Muldrow Herin Architects, says he and Lucas were trying to be contextual by giving the building its rectangular proportions and monumental columns. In fact, that's one reason why they felt they won.

"We always had the thought that it needed to be a modern building but giving some nod to Charleston and the context of Charleston in a very large building," he says. "It's more subtle than what people think of as contextual today."

If anyone wonders if the Gaillard's architecture was influenced by architect Edward Durrell Stone's Kennedy Center in Washington, Lucas says the answer is no.

"It was built before the Kennedy Center. They might have been thinking about us," he says. "There is a resemblance."

In announcing the plan, Mayor Joe Riley says the Gaillard isn't contextual and never will be.

Certainly, the preliminary design by David M. Schwarz Architects, Inc. -- which will be fleshed out in coming months by Earl Swensson Associates of Nashville and Evans & Schmidt Architects of Charleston -- promises to be much more traditional and popular.

Neither Lucas nor Stubbs is upset about the makeover. They take heart in what the building has given the city, including a historic performance of "Porgy and Bess," the chance to land the Spoleto Festival and uncountable other memories, such as the highlight of many a young girl's ballet career.

And both know deep down, some of their building would be preserved, even if they no longer will recognize their old work.

"The physical appearance probably will be almost nothing like it was," Lucas says, "but many of us will know the spirit of it will still be inside. I'll certainly have that satisfaction."

"If you're an architect, you live with that sort of thing," Stubbs adds. "It's much better than seeing it knocked down."