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Clay Center at 10: a look back

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- What has 500,000 red bricks, 400,000 concrete blocks, a planetarium, an art gallery, a science museum, a black-box theater and an acoustically superior 1,883-seat performance hall?

It took 20 years, from the first time a consultant proposed a downtown arts center until the doors finally opened, not to mention $120 million. Yet nearly all agree the wait and expense were worth it. 

Today, the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Don't expect any fireworks or gala receptions or special concerts this weekend though. Clay Center organizers are going strictly low-key, with a series of events throughout the next year.

"This is the weekend the Boy Scouts are coming," Clay Center President Judy Wellington said. "We're doing a performance for them, but we didn't think we could take on too much. So we're having a free day two weeks later, Summer Fun Day. We started them on our second anniversary.

"We're also having an event with the [West Virginia] Symphony. It's their 75th anniversary." A private donors' reception will precede the public Dec. 3 concert featuring Celtic Woman.

"On the visual arts side we're planning a commemorative print," Wellington said. "Unfortunately we haven't picked the artist. That will probably be in the spring." The chosen artist will work with a master printer at Tamarind, a lithography house in Albuquerque, N.M., to produce the limited-edition prints, she said.

"What we're trying to do is things related to our mission. In sciences, we're going to take out all the exhibits on the lower level and put in a creativity lab, which will have more open-ended activities."

While the existing Gizmo Factory is already interactive, "it's time to do something new," she said. "We'll probably change that every year."

It started with the mall and city planning study

It might be a stretch, but the idea to build a downtown arts center can be traced to the construction of Charleston Town Center in the early 1980s.

City leaders, worried about how the mall would shift the center of downtown retailing from Capitol Street, hired consultants to tell them what to do.

The landmark 1983 American Cities study was full of dreams, most of which came true -- a pedestrian corridor linking the mall to Capitol Street (Slack Plaza and Brawley Walkway), renovation of the old Capitol Theater on Summers Street, streetscape improvements.

There were three key projects, too, all aimed at keeping people and business people east of the new mall -- a riverfront park at the old city levee, a farmers market and an arts center.

Local movers and shakers formed a new group, Charleston Renaissance Corp., to make the American Cities plan a reality. They named retired businessman James R. Thomas Jr. chairman, and Barry Ogrin head of the arts center committee.

In 1985 another consultant, Philadelphia architect Jim Straw, said build the center in two vacant department store buildings -- Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney, both of which moved to the mall.

The center could have a concert hall for the symphony, which was aching to move from the cavernous Depression-era Municipal Auditorium; a smaller theater for community groups like the Charleston Ballet, Kanawha Players and Children's Theater; and an art gallery, science museum and planetarium for Sunrise Arts Museum, which was anxious to move out of its cramped South Hills quarters.

Ogrin said it might take up to six years to raise the estimated $32 million needed for the project.

Things picked up steam in 1987 when lawyer John McClaugherty, then managing partner of Jackson & Kelly and president of the symphony, took over as project chairman. McClaugherty, universally credited for making sure the center got built, died months before it opened in 2003.

By 1987, though, both department store buildings had found new tenants. Arts center organizers eyed a site a few blocks away. And McClaugherty made a key call to Chuck Avampato, president of the new Clay Foundation.

Brothers Lyell and Buckner Clay, owners of the Charleston Daily Mail, had just sold Clay Communications -- four newspapers, four TV stations -- for many millions of dollars, and put $25 million of the proceeds into the charitable foundation.

"Back then Jackson Kelly was our legal representative," said Avampato, still on the job at the Clay Foundation at 74. "We thought he was just taking us out to lunch. He wanted us to make a major gift."

The Clays liked the idea, although the fund was focused on social services, Avampato said.

"What the Clays wanted to do was bring something to the community that ordinary citizens couldn't do -- a world-class performance space," he said.

Plans idled for another few years as McClaugherty worked behind the scenes, trying to nail down a site. In November 1990 he announced a deal: With a $4 million donation from the Clay Foundation, the group would buy the 4.75-acre block leased by Team Chevrolet at Lee, Brooks, Washington and Broad streets (now Leon Sullivan Way).

He announced plans to raise the $30 million needed to build a home for the symphony, Sunrise, and local and traveling performing arts groups. Construction could start in four years, he said.

Concept kept changing as groups opted in, out

Actual design began at long last in 1992, with the hiring of an entire team: Jim Straw and his Philadelphia firm were lead architects; a Boston firm worked with Sunrise Museum; a coordinating architect; theater consultant; acoustics consultants; and more.

Conceptual plans arrived a year later, but the concept kept changing. The Kanawha County Library considered joining in for a while, then made other plans. Local groups offered ideas but wondered if they could afford to perform there. And all the while, McClaugherty was calling friends, asking for money.

Things picked up again in 1995 when Newton Thomas, brother of James, was named president of a newly formed organization -- the Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia, although McClaugherty remained as its major spokesman. Formal fundraising began.

Thomas soon hired Sue Sergi, a commissioner with the state Department of Health and Human Resources, to organize the group.

"We had to form different committees, make sure they were communicating with each other," she said. "We had a consultant who was doing fundraising. Later they asked me to take that on.

"We knew it was going to be one building. At first there was talk of a campus, several buildings. But Chuck and Lyell Clay felt strongly there were economies of scale in one building.

"We visited other cities to find out what they would have done differently," Sergi said.

In Cleveland, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame forgot to build an elevator big enough for a piano, she said. "So we made sure we had plenty of large elevators. The elevator behind the museum space is large enough to bring cars up and down, and it did.

"We changed some of our stage stuff," she said. "I was like, we'll make our mistakes, but let's not make other people's mistakes."

By late 1996, the budget had ballooned to $70 million, including a $15 million endowment for maintenance and operation. Two years later, the number jumped to $80 million. Board members seemed determined not to start construction until they had all the money in hand.

Finally, on May 3, 1999, more than 2,000 guests gathered at the site to watch the Clay brothers and Gov. Cecil Underwood turn over ceremonial shovels of dirt, signaling the start of construction. Mayor Kemp Melton promised an opening no later than early 2002.

In September 1999, McClaugherty announced that, thanks to their generosity -- $28 million and counting -- the Clay family had acquired naming rights to the facility.

Construction did not go smoothly, however. First, it was the architects, in October.

"The capacity of the earlier firm when we got to construction drawings, they just didn't have the capacity," Newt Thomas said. "We needed to step that up. We got a firm out of North Carolina."

The costs kept rising. "We started out with a construction management approach," Sergi said. "The costs during site preparation were coming in much higher. We decided we needed to go to a hard bid, which we did. So we hard bid for construction."

The single contractor approach couldn't stop costs from rising. Thomas got a call from Dick Corp.

"When the contractor called me one day -- the costs constantly changed -- they told me what the building would cost: $105 million. I wondered how in the world we could handle that. I went in and commiserated with Chuck."

The center eventually got built, although too late for the announced opening date of Feb. 19, 2003. Sergi, by then the president and CEO of the Clay Center, had to postpone three nights of gala activities, not to mention several shows already scheduled in what had been named the Maier Foundation Performance Hall.

Once built, center was resounding success

From the day it opened, visitors and performers alike have raved about the Clay Center -- the superb acoustics of the Maier Hall, the floor and sweeping staircase in the grand lobby, the innovative science exhibits, handsome gallery and immersive planetarium/wide-screen theater.

"My experience is it's one of the best halls I've performed in," said West Virginia Symphony conductor Grant Cooper. "I go to other halls across the country and I'm constantly reminded how good it is.

"The building is remarkably flexible. It works very well as a performance hall but also works well as a stage, with the orchestra in the pit, for ballet or opera."

Visiting artists universally praise it, too, Cooper said. "But even more is what I hear from audience members, even from large cities, comparing it to their halls back home."

Hired in 2001, Cooper and the orchestra played in the auditorium for several years, waiting for the Clay Center to open. He recalls the first concert there. "It was like opening a present on Christmas Day, from Santa Claus."

Because of its location across from CAMC General Hospital, designers built in $1 million of sound proofing to make sure helicopters or sirens wouldn't spoil a delicate violin solo.

Walls are double-thick, with insulation between, as is the Maier Hall ceiling. "Eighteen inches of concrete, 8 feet of air and insulation, and another 18 inches of concrete," Sergi said.

As good as the hall is, Cooper and others say the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

"I don't know of any other building like this, anywhere," Cooper said. "The Clay Center is an incomparable monument. It's groundbreaking, to combine music, art and the sciences."

Wellington would add education to that list.

"We provide education to the public, plus we provide programming for schools," she said. One program provides after-hours enrichment at three Boone County middle schools. Another supplies musical instruments and instructors to kids in Kanawha, Clay, Mingo, Lincoln and Mason counties.

"It's a great program. Let's say a kid plays guitar. If they stick with it after a year, they're given the guitar. That program was endowed by Lyell Clay ... just before he died."

School groups visit, of course, by the busload -- from 50 West Virginia counties.

But the Clay Center will soon take its message to the road in the form of a mobile science exhibit, packed into a pop-out truck. "We would take that to schools, mainly in the northern part of the state," Wellington said. The idea is to take kids in distant counties out of their classrooms for an hour or two, rather than the full day it would take to visit Charleston.

Money, image, parking issues

Even after it opened, the Clay Center has struggled to make ends meet. That's not unusual for such a facility. Through it all, Avampato has kept a close eye on operations.

"I'm still on the board at the Clay Center," he said. "We put that in our stipulation of our grant. We wanted to follow up. I've been in charge of finance since day one. I know where the dollars go. They had to be accountable for that.

"The one thing that was way out in left field was the operating costs. We've cut that back significantly," he said. "The biggest thing we had to protect was the programming."

Clay family generosity continued throughout the last 10 years, with annual gifts of about $1 million a year, he said. Total giving for the center to date is about $64 million, but the gravy train is about to stop.

"Our last grant was in subsidizing the operating funds ... over a two-year period. It's taken longer than expected to find a permanent replacement for that fund.

"Our weakness, if we have one, is contributing revenue -- support from the state, county and city," Avampato said. "They were very generous in the construction.

"There needs to be a commitment, a special tax. Maybe with all the revenue the state will be getting from natural gas there can be support for the arts."

One key to streamlining operations was the merger in 2006 of the former Sunrise offices with the Clay Center staff, Wellington said. That's when Wellington, a former Sunrise president, replaced the retiring Sergi.

Overall, the building has held up well for 10 years, she said. "We're going to have to change some of the carpet in the grand lobby. The building is very expensive to maintain. We spend over $1 million a year. That's a big piece of our operating budget."

Sergi and Wellington continue to fine-tune the list of performers, in part to attract a wider audience and dispel the center's hoity-toity South Hills image.

"We made some mistakes with programming at first," Sergi said. "If they cannot pronounce it, they will not come."

In other words, go for familiar names.

"We have in the last four to five years tried to bring in a younger audience and work to become more diverse geographically," Wellington said.

Performers like Jason Mraz and Old Crow Medicine Show fit the bill. More than half of the Old Crow Medicine Show audience was 30 or younger.

For the entire spring Clay Center Presents season this year, 32 percent of the audience was younger than 40, marketing manager Katrina Harmon said, and 5 percent were from out of state. Headliners attract more folks from adjacent states, she said, thanks to the Internet.

"Use of our halls has grown over the years," Wellington said. "We have promoters coming in now."

Records show the Maier Hall was booked 149 days in the year that ended June 30, while the Grand Lobby was used 157 days.

The "black box" Walker Theater, home to the Woody Hawley concert series, also has proved popular for weddings and other events.

Clay Center organizers never got the parking garage they longed for. The city of Charleston, struggling to make bond payments on existing garages, couldn't build another one. Yet patrons have learned to find parking -- either on designated lots or elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Lack of neighborhood growth is a surprise

Despite all its success, the Clay Center never lived up to one of its primary goals -- an economic stimulus. From the very start, promoters said the center would soon be surrounded by restaurants, boutiques and art galleries. Real estate gurus like Brooks McCabe and Jon Cavendish repeated the mantra almost until opening day.

"It hasn't happened," Cavendish said recently. "It fooled us all. We all thought there would be economic upgrades -- restaurants, video arcades, everything. Just look at that restaurant that used to be Chef Dan's. There's been five or six owners there."

"The future is here, and I've waited it out," Chef Dan Ferguson said in November 2003, nine years after he opened his restaurant at 222 Leon Sullivan Way, just across the street from the Clay Center.

"They should shoot an aerial picture now and compare it 10 years from now. It'll be incredible."

But Ferguson gave up suddenly in 2005, seeking greener pastures in Pittsburgh. The restaurant is now called Bruno's.

Even Thomas was caught up in the excitement. He envisioned housing and businesses on some of the nearby parking lots. "It's the perfect opportunity to convert some of those to businesses that will complement the Clay Center."

Be patient, McCabe said. "I clearly think it is one of the fundamental building blocks for development in the city.

"It is a major destination. What has not happened to the degree I thought it would in the last 10 years is the development around it," McCabe says.

But he still believes. "You will see that. It's not a matter of if, but when."

Alisa Bailey, CEO of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, said change is already underway. "It's interesting to see what's happened in the last 10 years. I'm not saying the Clay Center has caused all that, but the Clay Center has helped. You're seeing the East End coming back, new restaurants opening. That all fits together.

"It doesn't happen overnight. It's not like 10 years and it's there."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.

 


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