Since August 2012, when construction began downtown, anticipation for Charleston’s new Gaillard Center has been palpable. This July the curtain—currently a crazy quilt of scaffolding, construction fabric, and chain-link—will go up on something of a marvel.
With an 1,800-seat performance hall, 13,000-square-foot exhibition space, municipal offices, and a public park, the sum total is as dynamic as Charleston itself.
“One of the most exciting things about the project has been the enormous cooperation between the City and the Gaillard Foundation. Having municipal offices in the same building is remarkable, and it’s made the performance hall so much more achievable,” says Kiawah resident John Chalsty, governance board member and treasurer for the Gaillard Center, and capital campaign chair for its Performance Hall Foundation.
Aside from smart city planning, supporters are fired up about the Center’s superlative performance hall. As the construction braces peel off, the artfully designed space emerges to reveal a ceiling painted with a cloudscape, a sea of plush seats, and rows of opera balconies cantilevered from the sidewalls. Outside, towering neoclassical columns—topped with custom capitals that meld a host of Lowcountry icons: palmetto fronds, jasmine blooms, a sweetgrass basket-like pattern, and crescent moons—reach toward the sky.
The hall represents a feat of science, one built with acoustics (designed by Akustiks, the firm who tuned Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Hall and St. Louis’ Peabody Opera House) at the forefront. “In the past,” says Chalsty, “Gaillard Auditorium musicians couldn’t hear; acoustically, it was almost like a gym.” Now, says Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO) executive director Michael Smith, the musicians will not have to strain to hear themselves or other players.
Doerte McManus, executive director of the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation, notes the ancillary amenities, from elevators and bars to covered walkways from the parking garage to the Center. She thinks the matinees that preclude nighttime driving and the luxury hotels in walking distance for a date night with an overnight stay are prime benefits for those who live off the Peninsula. Many potential patrons, including McManus, have relocated or retired to the Charleston area from bigger cities, where attending performances was an essential part of their lives. “We’re excited that this element of quality of life will grow with the new Galliard,” she says.
Jill Chalsty, John’s wife and fellow cabinet member, adds that the performance hall is the missing jewel in Charleston’s arts crown, a venue that will secure the city’s position on the best-of lists for years to come. And, she says, it will mean fewer trips to New York for Charleston art lovers who have sought their culture fix elsewhere when the CSO’s season ends and Spoleto concludes. “Not only is King Street beautifully developed, and our restaurant scene second to none,” she says, “we now have a performance venue that will be incredibly booked because Tom Tomlinson [the Center’s executive director] has that vision.”
“It’s going to be a magnet for the world’s best talent,” agrees Ted Legasey, former board president of the CSO, Kiawah resident, and Gaillard Foundation cabinet member. “The arts here have gotten stronger and stronger. And with the addition of the Gaillard Center, it’s going to elevate things that much more.”
These days, take a turn around the full block and you’ll see elegant limestone facades (with sickle moons nestled in corners here and there), terraces, and the Noisette Rose Garden. The George Street backside blends with the historic Ansonborough neighborhood; the front park remains a space for the neighboring elementary school students; and the Calhoun face melds with the business district.
Three years ago Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. donned a hard hat for the groundbreaking and spoke of this very vision. “What will be created here is something that will pass the hundred- and two-hundred year test,” he told the crowd. “You will hear music here like you’ve never heard it before.”