Curtain goes up on major makeover of Dock Street Theatre

By Robert Behre | The Post and Courier | Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Dock Street Theatre, which was created in the 1930s on the site of the nation's first theatre, is ready to reopen following a three-year, $19 million renovation.

NEXT WEEK: The public unveiling of the Dock Street Theatre is set for 7-9 p.m. Thursday. The theater also will be open for the public to tour from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday.

NEXT MONTH: The theater will host its first performance with a special gala at 6 p.m. April 1. Performers include French soprano Natalie Dessay, violinist Geoff Nuttall and others. The event, a fundraiser for the Spoleto Festival USA, begins with a 6 p.m. champagne reception, followed by a 7 p.m. concert and then by a seated dinner. Tickets begin at $250 and are available by calling 579-3100 or visiting the Web site

MAY: Dock Street will open for performances on a regular basis when the 2010 Spoleto Festival begins May 28.

Previous stories

Dock Street face-lift on track, published 06/02/08

Down by Dock Street, published 05/31/09

Bracing change for local icon, published 08/23/09

When the public gets its first look at Charleston's newly renovated Dock Street Theatre next week, they will see the Coat of Arms of King Charles II still hanging above the stage.

The theater's pew seating and the individual balcony chairs also will look familiar, as will the brownstone columns framing the front doors.

But those who knew this theater before the city of Charleston began its about $19 million makeover also may notice scores of subtle changes that make the Dock Street complex more comfortable, functional and safe.

Mayor Joe Riley led a media tour through the building Friday. The city plans a reopening ceremony at 7 p.m. Thursday for the general public.

"Our challenge was to make sure that when you came back in the building, you would know it had been fixed up but that it would still be the same building you remembered," Riley said.

The theater was created in the 1930s from five historic buildings, several of which were used as a hotel during the 19th century. It also stands on the site of the nation's oldest theater, built around 1736, long before Dock Street was renamed Queen Street.

That much smaller theater burned down after a few decades, was rebuilt and burned again.

The Dock Street's three-year-long refurbishment was designed in part to prevent future disasters. It not only contains a new fire alarm system and sprinklers but also solves some dangerous conditions, such as giving new support to the brick wall along Queen Street and running steel rods through the Brownstone columns.

The city received a $3.7 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to make it more resistant to hurricanes and earthquakes.

Outside, the most significant changes include the addition of elaborate brackets atop the columns as well as new Palladian windows to either side of the front doors -- both features that once existed but had been removed or covered over decades ago.

Inside, one of the most welcome changes might be the cushions added to the 460 or so chairs. Architect Joseph Schmidt of Evans & Schmidt Architects said the old chairs on the first floor showed marks from where women's bra hooks had dug into the wood. "The new padding is incredibly important," he said.

The unsightly mushroom-shaped air conditioning grills in the ceiling are gone, replaced with slot diffusers that are hidden behind a cornice line.

Also, there are new metal railings along the balcony -- and along the stairs leading from the lobby to the balcony -- that were added for safety.

The theater is also more functional: The women's restrooms have been doubled, and the amount of dressing rooms have tripled. The green room just off stage can handle more equipment, scenery and instruments.

Outside, the courtyard has been expanded and has been given more shade with roofs built with ceramic tiles recycled from other city buildings. Riley noted the tiles along the edge of the roof have a bronze screen tucked under them to discourage wrens and sparrows from building nests there.

To ensure the space is handicapped-accessible, the city added three new elevators to serve each of the theater's seven levels (a result of its construction from different buildings). The elevator serves both levels of the second floor drawing room and tap room, now linked together via a small stair.

The theater's new color scheme, while not dramatically different from the old, is based on two half-circle paintings in the lobby that artist William Halsey did in the 1930s.

The work also could improve its already well-regarded acoustics, mostly because rooftop air conditioning units have been moved and because there are better-insulated service doors along Queen Street.

"We worked very carefully on the acoustics," Riley said. "You must be careful not to fix something that isn't broken."

The Dock Street team

Owner: City of Charleston

General Contractor: NBM Construction Co.

Architect: Evans & Schmidt Architects

Engineer: ADC Engineering; Charleston Engineering; Stephen S. Caskie

Theatrical consultant: Theatre Consultants Collaborative

Other subcontractors, consultants and participants: Plantation Painters, Brooks Signs Center, Anson Construction Co., B&C Land Development, Wildwood Landscape Contractors, Abate & Insulate, Willard Termite and Pest Control, Palmetto Gunite Construction, Division Five, H. Tezza Inc.

Salem Contracting Inc., Atlantic Coast Steel & Supply, Parker Rigging Co., Glover Fence Co., Charleston Awning & Metal Co., Southern Lumber, Professional Constructors Inc., Advanced Concrete Cutting & Coring, Feltman & Associates Inc., Carolina Roofing Inc.

Nystrom, Bilco, Environmental Projects Group Inc., Energy Smart Insulation Co., Lowcountry Doors & Hardware, Charleston Glass & Mirror, Port City Glass, Dillon Construction Services, Carolina Acoustical & Drywall, Spoleto Festival USA

W.F. Norman Corp., Winn's Flooring Co., Mescon's, Bonitz Contraction Co., A&R Sheet Metal Works, Mountain View Specialties, Stage Rigging Services, One Source, Meridian Automation & Communication Co., SECOA

Production Design Associates, Beck Studios Inc., Georgia Stage Inc., The Windsulator Corp., American Elevator, VSCFS, Now Mechanical, Triad Mechanical Contractors, Palmetto Air & Water Balance, W.D. Robinson Electric Co.

Relics, LLC, S&ME, Red Hill Distributors, Kim's Furniture, Azalea Moving Co., Williams' Upholstery, Margret Donaldson Designs, Vo Don Custom Framing, Catharine Rodgers, Nancy Newton

The French Quarter Neighborhood Association, Charleston Symphony Orchestra, JMC Events, Bill Murton (Photographer), The Gibbes Museum of Art, Hyams Garden Center, Nelson Printing, A&E Digital Printing

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