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After 10 years, Clay Center design still debated

Kenny Kemp
Sue Sergi, former Clay Center president, said they wanted the building to have a "timeless design," not something modern.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For all the time and money it took to build the Clay Center, some people think the city missed an opportunity to make a bold architectural statement.

Instead of something like the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao, Spain -- often cited as a hallmark of contemporary architecture -- Charleston got what a Gazette commentary, at the time of its opening, referred to as a Bundt cake.

The Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia, 20 years in the making, began a yearlong celebration of its 10th anniversary this past weekend.

The building certainly has its moments, especially during performance nights when it glows from within. But it almost seems like its designers ran out of energy when they got around to doing the exterior.

Newt Thomas, the retired engineer and business executive and the arts center's first board president, said board members didn't want a flashy Gehry-type building.

"There were eight people who sat on the committee for the outside," Thomas said. "We were concerned about it fitting in Charleston. The wow factor is the inside of the building."

Planning for the exterior dates back at least to 1996, when John McClaugherty told a reporter project leaders had narrowed down their choice of materials to brick, limestone or a combination of the two.

McClaugherty expected the domed roof of the planetarium would catch the eye of passers-by.

"We want that sphere to be the signature piece," he said. "When people talk about the arts and science center, we want them to think of a sphere."

Jim Straw, the lead architect, said the sphere was a good icon for the science museum. "But we are also an art museum and a performance hall."

The resulting building -- actually two buildings in one, separated by a two-inch gap -- reflects the masses of those parts. Looking from the front you see the dome of the Electric Sky Theater on the right and the vaulted roof of the Maier Performance Hall on the left, with a second smaller dome in the center over the main lobby.

The committee struggled with the exterior finish, said Sue Sergi, the former Clay Center president.

"We had some challenging discussions about the façade," she said. "People wanted a timeless design. They didn't want something modern.

"We brought in an architectural illustrator. He designed the exterior of the Bowles Rice building. It was a fascinating process.

"He spent the morning just listening to the committee, what do they like. He came back in the evening with this drawing. It was very Jeffersonian. That was it."

That's the term Thomas mentioned, too. "It's sort of Jeffersonian in style. He did a good job in Monticello.

"Could we have done a façade that makes more of a statement? I've heard those comments. The eight people on the committee all liked the design.

"You've got your statement now with 'Hallelujah' out front," Thomas said, referring to the love-it-or-hate-it 64-foot-tall Albert Paley sculpture installed in 2009.

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


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