Bracing change for local icon

6 massive brackets added during restoration

By Robert Behre Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Post and Courier

A close-up view of the Dock Street Theatre's new mahogany brackets, each of which weighs about 200 pounds. The original brackets were removed when the building was renovated in the 1930s to create the theater.

A dramatic addition has been made to the facade of Charleston's Dock Street Theatre, and it's not just any run-of-the-mill detail.

The building's ongoing restoration recently added six massive new genuine mahogany brackets, each of which weighs about 200 pounds and was built from more than a dozen carved pieces, including acanthus leaves and a lion's head.

It's by far the most noticeable alteration to the Church Street exterior. The only other visible changes will include raising the sidewalk to return to its original two brownstone steps and adding back two arched window openings into the lobby, openings that had been covered over in 1935.

Architect Joe Schmidt said he always had been bothered by the apparent lack of support for the theater's balcony, but research soon discovered what was missing.

When the building -- first built as a hotel -- was converted into a theater about 70 years ago, the architect removed these brackets, which can be seen in some early 20th century photos. The brackets likely were taken down because water had seeped through the wooden flooring and gradually rotted the brackets. The wooden flooring was replaced with a cantilevered concrete slab.

"The facade of Dock Street Theatre is arguably in the top five most painted and photographed scenes in downtown Charleston," Schmidt said. "I think that the Chamber of Commerce should put out a bulletin that tourists who took pictures of the Dock Street facade may wish to return for an updated photo opportunity."

The cost of installing the new brackets and restoring the old ones ran about $32,000, a lot for a cosmetic detail but a relative pittance compared with the $20 million price tag for the theatre's restoration. It's set to reopen in plenty of time to host Spoleto Festival events next spring.

The six new restored brackets are the exact same size and design as the 10 side brackets, which survived the 1930s restoration possibly because they were more protected from the elements.

The new brackets are even worn in the same way as the side brackets because the new ones were carved to match the old, said Stephen Wilkinson of PCI Cabinetworks, which did much of the work.

"The architects wanted us to duplicate what was there, so we used a duplicator machine," Wilkinson said. "We tried to copy what was there -- not to make them any finer or more refined."

The older brackets also had been worn because they had served as a sort of bird condominium for decades.

"They were full of wrens," Tom Magee of NBM Construction said. "We took them down, and the birds circled here for a couple of days."

The new brackets have slightly shallower indentions in the acanthus leaves so birds will find them less suitable as a home.

The old brackets needed extensive work. About 20 percent of their pieces were replaced with new mahogany, while the salvageable pieces were repaired with epoxy and filler.

The brackets now look like the wood but eventually will be painted to resemble brownstone, making them appear as if they're made of the same material as the theatre's brownstone columns.

The original theater was built in 1735 and was the first building erected for theatrical use in what is now the United States. It burned in 1740, was rebuilt a few decades later but burned again in 1782.

The Calder House hotel was built on the site around 1807, and the balcony and brackets were added during a renovation about 15 years later. The hotel was renamed The Planter's Hotel, which eventually closed. The building was going to be demolished in the 1930s when the city's budding preservation movement successfully pushed to renovate it into what now is the Dock Street Theatre.

Architect Will Evans, Schmidt's partner, said the new brackets will complete the restored theater's look. "It was the missing link that was there for so long. ... They aren't just brackets; they're beautiful sculpture."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or at rbehre@postandcourier.com.

Photo by: Robert Behre

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