Sottile's hidden gems: Removal of theater's curtains reveals murals of the seven muses

When construction crews recently removed the heavy curtains lining the side walls of the Sottile Theatre, they revealed pieces of its past that had been covered over for more than a generation.

Two murals of the seven muses, each measuring 15 feet by 271/2 feet, existed when the building first opened in 1927 as the Gloria Theatre.

The mural on the northern wall stillis visible, though it's not in the greatest of shape.

The artwork -- which features four of the muses -- is scarred by pockmarks of adhesive that held acoustical panels during the building's waning days as a movie theater.

The mural on the southern wall suffered more from a roof leak as well as greater temperature fluctuations. It was removed and remains in storage.

The work, done by NBM Construction,  began just before Christmas and was designed to improve the theater's rather dead acoustics, said Roland Craft, project manager with the college.

Crews took down the heavy curtains, then began removing acoustic panels that had been glued to the plaster walls.

The somewhat unexpected discovery of the murals -- and the urgency of finishing theconstruction work by the agreed-upon May 1 deadline -- led the college to contact Richard Marks Restorations and architect Glenn Keyes.

"It was in crisis mode at that point," Keyes said.

Marks and Keyes oversaw the removal of the southern mural, and Keyes brought in a new consultant for rebuilding the southern wall, which was plaster on brick -- an inferior design because the plaster wicks water from the brick and fails.

The building, designed by Charleston-based architect J.D. Newcomer, likely had itsmurals done or at least installed by the Marcil Miller Co.

Marks was able to date the murals to the theater's completion date in a novel way: Funny pages from a Jan. 30, 1927, newspaper were found balled up inside two unused conduit boxes.

Both murals might be restored to their former glory, but the College of Charleston must find the money -- the cost could run as high as a few hundred thousand dollars -- as well as enough down time when the theater is not being used.

Keyes said the walls originally had pilasters separating the main murals from smaller decorative rectangular paintings that flank the murals. Those could be put backbefore a decision is made on the murals.

Meanwhile, the theater is in stable shape, so college officials have some time to figure out what to do next.

"Spoleto has been delighted with the acoustics of it," Keyes said.

And Craft clearly has enjoyed showing off the building's newly visible, if somewhat roughed up, history.

As he recently guided a visitor inside, he said, "You're fixing to see a miracle."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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